Churchill tour operator deploys new kind of polar energy

CHURCHILL — One of the world’s toughest electric vehicles was unveiled this weekend in Churchill.

A ride in any Tundra Buggy is a memorable experience. The vehicle itself is remarkable, with the interior resembling a school bus – but much roomier. The buggy body is then mounted on wheels intended for the largest industrial vehicles in the world, raising the platform two meters above the ground.

But on top of that, the air, as the vehicle rumbles to life, is still filled with anticipation and hope; built on expectation, riders will soon come face-to-face with one of the world’s most iconic predators.

Usually the ride is noisy and the polar bear guide is forced to strain his voice to speak over the rumble of the diesel engine – stalling until the stars of the show appear from the window.

But today, for the first time, the journey is almost silent.

Tye Noble, who built the buggy (left) and CEO and Chairman John Gunter. (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press)

John Gunter introduces himself to the runners, speaking at a conversational decibel. His voice rivals only a barely noticed buzz that accompanies the 12 buggy’s new all-electric motor.

Gunter, President and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures, beams as the first electric Tundra Buggy in his fleet soars through the unforgiving muddy tundra landscape. That works.

“I’m super excited,” said Gunter, “This silent ride in a Tundra Buggy under the Churchill Northern Lights and among Manitoba’s wild polar bears is a remarkable sightseeing experience like no other in the world.”

Last January, the provincial government announced $149,000 to Churchill’s largest tour operator, Frontiers North, to help it electrify one of its Tundra Buggy vehicles, used to ferry tourists into polar bear territory.

Bob Debets drives a gasoline-powered Tundra Buggy while an electric Tundra Buggy leads him.  (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press)

Bob Debets drives a gasoline-powered Tundra Buggy while an electric Tundra Buggy leads him. (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press)

The total cost of the project is not disclosed, but it also benefited from financial or in-kind contributions from Red River College, the Vehicle Technology Center and the NFI Group.

The four huge batteries that power the buggy are recycled, having previously been used in New Flyer buses. The EV Tundra Buggy represents a lot of experimentation and teamwork, drawn from the greatest expertise in this field that Manitoba has to offer.

Excitement and nerves dance across the face of Tye Noble, Frontiers North’s chief mechanic, as he grabs the steering wheel and pulls his baby out of the parking spot for the very first time.

“It was pretty amazing that it actually worked the way we intended. We really took a lot of the risks and ideas that we had running these machines for years, and put them into one machine,” Noble said.

“I’m not surprised, but I was very happy that it worked exactly as we thought it would.”

An electric Tundra Buggy.  (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press)

An electric Tundra Buggy. (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press)

Noble said they don’t know exactly how much range the vehicle will have per charge because it’s never been used, but they estimate three days of tours could be done before it needs to be plugged in. .

The vehicle was retrofitted, meaning it was shipped by rail to Winnipeg where the majority of the work was done, before making the trip north again, only arriving in Churchill the day before his big beginnings.

For Gunter, the investment was worth it for several reasons. Of course, the experience of tourists will be improved. But more importantly, for visitors to Churchill who come to see the polar bear icons whose demise is almost guaranteed by climate change, he believes it is important to do your part to lead by example and reduce the emissions associated with its operation where it can.

“We often talk about our purpose as a company and our responsibility to share stewardship of the environments and communities in which we operate. We have been measuring our (greenhouse gas) emissions for years and estimating – for a normal fall polar bear touring season – this EV Tundra Buggy will reduce our company’s GHG emissions by 8.33 tonnes of carbon dioxide,” said Gunter.

The company aims to convert its entire fleet of around a dozen buggies to electric this decade.

Passengers face the wind in the outer section of an electric Tundra Buggy.  (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press)

Passengers face the wind in the outer section of an electric Tundra Buggy. (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press)

The presentation of the EV 12 buggy in the tundra thrills electric vehicle enthusiasts. Robert Elms, president of the Manitoba Electric Vehicle Association, expects people who doubted the viability of electric passenger vehicles will have their notions challenged when they see a vehicle of this size operating in the freezing temperatures that characterize the Churchill winters.

“It’s a moment like this that will make anyone and everyone who lives up north look and see: if it works there, they have to work here,” Elms said.

EV enthusiasts and tourists aren’t the only ones excited to see the EV Tundra Buggy unveiled. Frontiers North also regularly partners with researchers around the world, allowing them to use Tundra Buggies for their projects, a quiet approach is likely to offer new benefits.

“I’m super excited about the electric vehicle,” said Stephen Petersen, director of conservation and research at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. “I was dreaming about research projects on my way to work today. What I could do from a silent rig.”

— Special for the Winnipeg Free Press