Team standing in front of building

Building a better ATV

By Carter Hammett

Every once in a while an innovative project comes along that acts as a force for positive social change while benefitting the community.

Recently I found myself applauding the actions of a group of University of Calgary engineering students who happened to find a way of converting an all-terrain (ATV) vehicle to electric power in a way that would help indigenous communities living in remote communities.

Up in Canada’s great white north, ATV’s are a way of life and considered a necessity.

The Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Lake Research Station lies about 220 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse. Established in 1961, the station is home to research in a variety of fields including hydroponics, weather and renewable energy. There, Henry Penn, a researcher working on developing sustainable energy projects wanted to identify a method of converting a gas-powered Kubota utility vehicle used at the station to an electric motor. 

Enter a team of students from the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering: Marlin Sako, Alejandro Sulbaran, Natasha Eden, Jasmine McDermott, Austin Bercier and Wylie Pietsch. Two of the students have a cultural connection to the project as Bercier is Metis and McDermott is Cree. Both had been looking for ways to give back to their communities.

Part of the impetus for initiating such a project is that gas prices in northern communities are ridiculously expensive: 13.6 – 30 cents per kW.h of electricity, way above the Canadian average of 12.9 cents per kW.h. In their project overview, the students add that with the area’s low population density and remote location, electrical needs are usually met by more expensive and carbon-intensive energy sources like gasoline and diesel generators.

To date, solar batteries have been able to generate enough power to operate the ATV for up to 90 minutes. Recharging the unit merely involves plugging it in to a standard power outlet. Northern communities have a heavy reliance on these mid-size vehicles as they are constantly used to ferry people and supplies around some of the harshest landscapes in the world.

With winter temperatures averaging -30C, weather became a major factor in every step of the design process.

But that challenge aside, the initiative was fraught with problems almost from its inception. Chief among these was maneuvering through a global supply chain shortage, which drove prices up and put a severe strain on deliverables. 

And yet the team persevered and bashed on regardless, delivering a product that respects the land and takes the context of its community into consideration throughout the design process. The conversion cost about $7,000 and took about a week to complete. Additionally, the conversion was completed in a manner that is modular, affordable, and easily replicable so that surrounding Indigenous communities may also take advantage of this project’s findings and solutions.

I’m as big a fan of all the technological bells and whistles that marry with automotive design as anyone else, but seeing a vision that not only enhances a community’s self- reliance but also incorporates cultural context while looking beyond immediate needs is something else altogether. The students are to be applauded not only for their vision and generosity of spirit, but also for creating a potential prototype that might provide the foundation for a sustainable future for generations to come. 

For more on the project visit: Petrol to Electric Kubota Conversion Kit – Engineering Design Fair 2022 (

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