Snowmobiles are part of the winter soundtrack. At worst, they break the silence of the forest like motorcycles on skis. But the motorized sleds bouncing along a wooded mountain trail in February were quiet, except for the sound of metal skids on snow.
The machines, built by a young Canadian company, Taiga, were battery-powered – the first electric snowmobiles sold on a large scale – and symbolize how means of transport of all kinds are migrating towards emission-free propulsion. Taiga also offers battery-powered jet skis, another form of recreation where the gas version is seen in some quarters as a downer.
Although electric cars are attracting the most attention, electric lawnmowers, boats, bicycles, scooters, and all-terrain vehicles are proliferating. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric cars are taking over the automotive world. Young companies are courting investors who claim to be the Teslas of boating, cycling, or lawn and garden care.
The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard motors or lawn mowers are not usually equipped with catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy and often use lower-quality fuel.
According to the California Air Resources Board, a gasoline-powered lawn mower creates as much pollution in one hour as a 300-mile car trip.
California has passed legislation to ban gas-powered lawnmowers by 2024 and all-new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are growing even without a government push.
One of Taiga’s earliest customers was Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, which bills itself as an environmentally conscious ski resort. Taos Ski Patrol and trail maintenance employees will use the electric snowmobiles for tasks like transporting injured skiers or maintaining snowmaking equipment, said David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski. Valley. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to implement an electric treading machine built by Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug, a German company.
Although the electric snowmobiles, which start at $17,500, are more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts, which can be had for less than $10,000, the station will save money on fuel and interviews, Norden said.
“If you do the cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably close to breaking even,” he said. These are not just decisions for the environment, but also good decisions for our bottom line. »
But sometimes people turn to electric power because it offers practical benefits.
Buyers of power lawn and garden equipment surveyed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited noise reduction, low maintenance costs, and eliminating the need to store gas cans in the garage as their top priorities. important. Electric leaf blowers or trimmers are often cheaper and lighter than gas-powered versions.
The challenges of the ship
But electrifying ships and other vehicles often presents technological challenges. Electric power works for small boats or boats that don’t travel very far. This is the only option on the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are prohibited due to noise or pollution.
But because water creates so much drag, large powerboats need more continuous power than current batteries can provide. (Sailboats, of course, have been powered by wind power for thousands of years.)
Batteries are “part of the answer going forward, but not necessarily the whole answer,” said David Foulkes, chief executive of Brunswick, which makes Mercury marine engines.
Still, Mercury has unveiled a prototype electric outboard and is carefully watching the move to electrification.
“We intend to be a leader in this area,” said Foulkes, who drives a battery-powered Porsche. Although the market is small at the moment, we want to be there and see what the market is doing. »
Samuel Bruneau, CEO of Taiga, said electrifying the snowmobiles was a challenge because the batteries and motors had to withstand extreme temperatures and rough terrain.
“No one was entering this market because they required new technology,” he said. This is the opportunity we saw. »
The competition is coming. BRP, a Quebec-based company that makes Ski-Doo snowmobiles as well as ATVs and powerboats, said it will offer electric versions of all its products by 2026. The company also plans to enter the motorcycle market with a range of electric two-wheelers by 2024.
“There is a car-driven trend,” said José Boisjoli, chief executive of BRP, which is the largest snowmobile maker. We can’t ignore it. »
But he added that the transition would be slower in the leisure sector. For one thing, markets are much smaller, making it difficult to realize the cost savings that mass production brings. Fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide in 2021, compared to around 60 million cars.
Also, snowmobiles and powerboats don’t benefit from government subsidies and tax breaks that can reduce the price of an electric car by several thousand dollars. Loading is also a problem in the forest. Taiga has set up charging stations along with a busy network of snowmobile trails in Quebec and is planning more.
But snowmobiles venturing out into the wild will always prefer gasoline, according to Boisjoli. “The combustion engine will be in snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agrees that long-distance snowmobile riders, who can easily cover more than 100 miles a day, will be skeptical.
However, Mr. Jacangelo said he was looking forward to trying out a Taiga. “When it comes to performance, you have a sled that can compete with anything else on the market,” he said.
Since electric snowmobiles are quieter, they could help reduce friction between snowmobiles and people who see these machines as an affront to nature. This would open more ground to snowmobiles.
“It is certain, says Mr. Jacangelo, that an electric sled will change the opinion of many environmentalists about the snowmobile. »
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