Silence. Except for the wind whooshing through the open windows, the tires treads padding on the pavement, and the hum of acceleration, like a bicycle picking up speed, it is quiet.
This is what an electric vehicle sounds like. Gliding down the road at about 80 km/hour, but for the stones and holes in the pavement breaking up the movement, the ride is seamless.
For Peter Menzies, the electric car is far from dead. It’s how the shop teacher at Robert Service School in Dawson City commutes to work every day.
Menzies and automotive mechanic Doug Cotter have rescued fossil-fuel burning trucks from the dump and converted them into battery-powered vehicles. The only substance they use to top up their lead-acid battery packs is pure, distilled water purchased at a local grocery market.
With three light-weight pickups converted over four years, these guys claim they have a cheaper and cleaner way to get around town.
Cotter removes the lid from the 120-volt battery pack, which covers a third of the box of a light blue 1986 Mazda B200. This is the latest project of Cotter and Menzies. It was completed last October and fully-funded with an $18,000 grant from the Conservation Klondike Society (CKS.)
The pack contains 20 bright blue, six-volt lead-acid batteries the size of small watermelons. They sit like ice cubes in a tray, laced together by thick black and red cords. The pack weighs about 544 kilograms and can power the truck up to 90 km/hour.
Cotter and Menzies call the Mazda the “Cadillac” of their EV (electric vehicle) fleet, with the biggest motor and most powerful controller to feed it by channelling the energy from the batteries. The CKS uses it to do paper collection from local sites and haul the recyclables to the Dawson City Recycling Depot.
“We are like little kids,” Menzies chuckles. “When we took this one for a test ride we were giggling. It was ridiculous.”
Converting a gas truck into an electric vehicle had been Cotter’s dream for more than a decade. He’s been holding tools in his hands since he was a child, and had a background in aircraft maintenance engineering before becoming a certified automotive mechanic.
In contrast, Menzies calls himself “a computer geek” and has combined his shop skills of carpentry, welding and electronics with lessons in physics from Cotter.
Menzies, originally from Crystal City, Manitoba, and Cotter, born in Quesnel, BC, have been living and driving the local routes in Dawson City for about the same amount of time – 30 years.
They both found themselves found seeking the same goal: a vehicle with light load, short distance efficiency.
“Guys need trucks – we’re kind of truck guys,” says Menzies with a laugh. “But a gas-powered truck to go to the dump once every two weeks, to haul a sound system, to get groceries – you don’t need to burn gas to do that.”
Inspired by the 2006 documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, they got to work.
Their first truck, a forest green 1982 Toyota pickup had a blown-out engine before they converted it into a 144-volt lead-acid battery-powered electric truck.
They stripped it of its gas-related parts (muffler, gas tank, radiator) and installed the motor mounts. Then they laid out the battery box, built the cables and ran the long cables up the vehicle.
Finally, they connected the cables and installed the inner cab components (including two chargers) and nicknamed the result “EV1”.
The next two were built the same way.
“It’s nice driving by a gas station and not having to pull in,” says Cotter. “The idea that you could be driving a non-polluting vehicle and not putting fuel in it, and it’s something you can put together yourself – it’s very rewarding.”
After EV1, Menzies’ brown and tan 1984 Ford Ranger, “EV2” came next. (They call the CKS Mazda “EV3”.)
It was a $15,000 investment that took nearly a year to complete, spread out over spare weekends, when Cotter could work. But the payoff for Menzies is using a three- prong cord to charge his car overnight on his home circuit. Cost of hydro to fuel his truck per day: 18 cents.
Still, there are limitations to owning an electric vehicle. EV2 has a range of about 40 kilometres, so Menzies also owns a Toyota Yaris for long-distance trips, to Whitehorse for example.
The batteries have an anticipated lifespan of five years. Menzies expects the replacement costs to be around $5,000 in the next year or so.
With improving battery technology, Menzies and Cotter believe that together with a growing group of passionate innovators they have inspired and correspond with, from Fairbanks, Alaska to Hearst, Ontario, they will work out the shortcomings of EVs.
“We are just doing it for ourselves,” says Menzies, “But people are looking for a solution to high energy costs … maybe 18 cents a day really will make a difference.”
Alyssa Friesen is our co-editor in Dawson City.