The word ‘electric’ enters Yellowknifers’ transport vocabulary

Michelle MacDonald’s life is a little more electric these days. Her car is a hybrid Ford Escape and her bike is a VoltBike.

Purchased from British Columbia – MacDonald was thrilled to discover the shipping was just $50 – the VoltBike is an electric bike, with a battery attached to the frame.

For MacDonald, who was never much of a cyclist before, the e-bike is exciting and feels like a safer way to introduce herself to cycling around Yellowknife.


“We have one vehicle to share between two of us and I want to get around town,” said MacDonald. (Her husband, Kevin, hosts a Saturday morning show on Cabin Radio.)

“We have a lot of hills and I didn’t want to die just biking without any support,” she laughed.

The MacDonalds, their e-bike and their hybrid vehicle are emblematic of a gradual but noticeable shift in Yellowknife’s transport dynamic.

Not long ago, electric vehicles in the city remained sufficiently exotic that you could count them on one finger, never mind one hand.

The Arctic Energy Alliance had a demonstration vehicle. Then the Fat Fox catering company acquired an electric Kia for deliveries and the city’s car-share program brought up a Chevy Spark. Hay River had a Tesla or two. That was that.


Now, a large-enough pool exists for environmental non-profit Ecology North to organize meet-ups for electric vehicle and e-bike owners in celebration of Earth Week.

Demand for electric vehicles has “shifted far more quickly than any of us anticipated,” said Mark Heyck, executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance, which manages the territorial rebate system for electric vehicle purchases.

That program has issued around 20 rebates since the summer of 2020, Heyck said. There are understood to be multiple orders in Yellowknife for fully electric trucks, like the Ford F-150 Lightning making its debut this year.

“One of the things we’ve heard from people here is they need big trucks that can run on rural and winter roads,” said Heyck. “The fact that those are now being mass-produced by well-accepted and well-regarded auto manufacturers is going to be huge.”


Accepting limitations

The idea that electric vehicles crumble in northern winters is long put to bed (their range decreases but, if anything, they start and warm up more readily than a gas vehicle).

The environmental trade-off that electric vehicles mean more mining, for battery components like cobalt and lithium, is accepted locally not least because the NWT is trying to get a cobalt mine off the ground.

For prospective purchasers in the NWT, the main sticking point is now those vehicles’ range.

Hybrid vehicles are proving popular for that reason, said Heyck, as they guarantee drivers a straight shot from Yellowknife to Hay River or Fort Smith without worrying about finding a fast charger. If long-distance driving across the territory is a requirement, you’ll be waiting a few years before going fully electric as the infrastructure to charge a vehicle rapidly isn’t in place and will be costly to install.

“The electrical infrastructure even to Enterprise is not really sufficient to support a fast-charging level three charging station,” Heyck said.

“In Fort Providence, where you’re on diesel, you would essentially have to fire up a generator – producing, you know, greenhouse gas emissions – to be able to power a fast-charging station.” (There are some renewable energy projects in Fort Providence, too. A $60-million, 170-km transmission line switching Fort Providence from diesel to hydro is scheduled to begin construction in 2023.)

'Sparky,' a 2016 Chevy Spark, departs on a test ride for interested residents on April 22, 2022
‘Sparky,’ a 2016 Chevy Spark, departs on a test ride for interested residents on April 22, 2022. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Heyck said even the range hurdle isn’t holding back some purchasers. They either don’t expect to drive long distances or consider going electric a priority.

“One of the things I found really encouraging, just in the last year, is hearing from some of our clients who have purchased pure battery electric vehicles. And they know the range is only 300 or 325 km. They know they cannot, under current circumstances, drive from here to Edmonton in that vehicle,” he said.

“But they made the purchase anyway, because they thought it was important from a personal responsibility point of view to move in that direction.

“They just accepted that, for the moment, they’ll be able to tool around town but they won’t be able to drive to major points south.”

Four decades, new bike

At Sunday’s e-bike meet-up outside Yellowknife’s Multiplex, MacDonald is one of seven or eight e-bike owners showing off her purchase to interested passers-by.

Another is Adrian D’Hont, whose electric bike is just six days old. He was convinced to buy an e-bike after seeing the speed with which his son Thomsen could get up a hill with one.

“I think I’ve got 29 kilometres on it right now. I charged the battery before I started and it hasn’t even gone down. But you know, I’m using the pedals too, because I don’t want to just use it as a motorcycle,” D’Hont said.

“You can make it so that you’re working as hard as you want. And when you come to a hill or you’ve got a headwind, you can have it as easy as you want, too.”

Ordinarily, D’Hont is not what you might call an early adopter. His last bike purchase was in Fort Smith – 39 years ago.

“I got a first-generation mountain bike back in 1983. I’m still riding it, too,” he said.

But D’Hont decided the time was right for an e-bike and, despite high demand, he’s working out how to acquire a companion bike for his wife.

“Hopefully they can get it here before fall. I don’t know. There seems to be demand and that might ramp up with the NWT still talking about some kind of rebate,” he said. (There has been pressure from a couple of regular MLAs for the territory to introduce an e-bike rebate, as exists in the Yukon. The territorial government has promised to look into it.)

Rebate changes

Rebates are already expanding for electric vehicles.

Last week, the federal government said larger vehicles like vans, SUVs and trucks now qualify for rebates. The maximum base price of a qualifying vehicle has also increased, meaning you can buy a slightly fancier electric vehicle and still get the rebate (up to $5,000 for fully electric vehicles or $2,500 for hybrids).

The territorial rebate adds on to the federal one, meaning you can apply for both and get a total of $10,000 off the purchase of a fully electric vehicle. You need to apply for the territorial one before making a purchase, and the territorial program has not yet changed to keep pace with the expanded federal version. Heyck said the Arctic Energy Alliance will study the federal alterations and is likely to move to match them at a future point.

“Everybody who’s in the electric vehicle business has recognized that until you expand that range of options for consumers, including things like pickup trucks and SUVs – which of course are very, very popular in the North – then you’re not going to get the kind of conversion you want from traditional combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles,” he said.

At the other end of the scale, MacDonald wants her e-bike purely to get around town without needing to fight for use of the family car or call a cab. The bike, costing around $2,000, is taking a vehicle off the road.

The battery detaches so it can be brought inside to charge, and most e-bikes can put out speeds of around 30 km/h. MacDonald didn’t use hers over the winter, though there are one or two hardy residents who switched to studded tires and kept theirs going.

“We kind-of got ahead of the curve with the gas prices going up,” MacDonald said of the joint purchase of the hybrid vehicle and the bike.

“I love the way technology is changing things. To be able to be, like, tech-savvy and on a bike and outside? It’s pretty cool.”