Science·What on Earth?

Meet a guy who converts gas-guzzling cars into electric vehicles 

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we speak to a Toronto entrepreneur who converts gas-guzzling cars into electric vehicles and learn about climate communication from Canadian scientist and 'Champion of the Earth' Katharine Hayhoe.

Also: A Q&A with a Canadian 'Champion of the Earth'

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Meet a guy who converts gas-guzzling cars into electric vehicles 
  • Which countries have the most tree cover?
  • How scientist and 'Champion of the Earth' Katharine Hayhoe deals with climate skeptics

This Toronto businessman retrofits classic cars with electric motors

(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When Davinder Singh was in high school, around the turn of the millennium, he couldn't wait for B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems to come out with its hydrogen fuel cell. At the time, he believed his first car would be, as he put it, "water-powered."

That didn't happen, and he ended up buying — and fixing — a series of gas-powered cars. "They were always, constantly, breaking down, these combustion vehicles," Singh said.

At some point, he asked himself: Why don't I go electric? This was 2010, and the Tesla Roadster was available. But it was priced at around $100,000 and was out of Singh's reach. He said other available electric vehicle (EV) options "were not desirable."

That's when the Toronto-based entrepreneur said he started "scheming" on a plan: converting a gas guzzler into an electric vehicle. Singh went from studying cell biology and working in the pharmaceutical industry to learning everything there was about the design and engineering of e-cars

In 2012, he successfully retrofitted his 1985 Jaguar XJ6. Singh now runs Epic Car Conversions, which specializes in converting internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles into 100 per cent EVs.  The company has retrofitted about 40 vehicles, mostly high-end vintage cars, including Porsches and other Jaguars.

Epic removes all the combustion components of the vehicle, from the engine to the fuel tank to the exhaust, and custom builds an electric drive unit specific to the car being retrofitted. It includes assembling a motor, inverter, battery pack and charger. It's a simplified unit that requires very little maintenance, said Singh. "You will not have to see your mechanic ever for oil changes, spark plugs or tune-ups." 

Singh has a team of about 10 people, including mechanics and machinists, and the retrofitting process can take about two months — depending on the amount of customization involved, it can take longer.

Because each retrofit must be custom-built "from scratch," the switch isn't cheap. Singh said prices range from about $25,000 for a battery with a 100-kilometre range (good for city driving) to $45,000 for a 250-km battery. He said some builds can be more than $85,000, but those are rare and typically include more range and customized paint jobs.

The high cost poses a challenge, said Singh, because his company is competing with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Tesla, Nissan and Ford — companies that buy and build EVs in bulk. He said Epic's advantage is its ability to customize any car.

And it's looking to branch out. With help from the Canadian government, Singh's startup has made connections in places like Thailand and India, where Singh has been promoting Epic's electric-drive unit for use in vehicle fleets (like company cars or buses). He's also had conversations with a municipality in the Greater Toronto Area.

Keeping maintenance and fuel costs low is the reason Singh started on this journey. But helping cut carbon emissions is also important for this father of one. 

"If we have more electric vehicles on the road … we'll have cleaner air for the next generation."

Nazima Walji

Reader feedback

Last Friday, an estimated seven million people came out worldwide to demonstrate for climate action, led by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who joined 500,000 protesters in Montreal. Do you think the ongoing climate strikes will have an impact on the Canadian election?

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: The cheapest forms of energy, by country

Trees are key to fighting climate change, but industrial development and urbanization over the last couple of centuries have reduced the size of forests in parts of the world. Many countries have recognized the problem and have acted accordingly — China and India, for example, have undertaken aggressive tree-planting campaigns. The graph below captures the countries with the most tree cover — i.e. the percentage of their landmass covered by trees. Suriname, a country of about 550,000 people in South America, comes out on top. We also included some more populated countries underneath as a point of comparison.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The British Isles get a lot of wind, and they've used that natural endowment to produce a lot of renewable energy. Now, General Electric is installing the world's largest turbines (260 metres tall) in an area off the Yorkshire coast called Dogger Bank, soon to be the world's largest wind farm.

  • A Guardian article explores the idea of "secret sustainability" — namely, companies that have managed to make their manufacturing processes more energy- or resource-efficient, and thus better for the planet, but haven't gone public about it.

'We're looking for common ground': Canadian scientist and 'Champion of the Earth' on talking to climate skeptics

(Ashley Rodgers/Texas Tech University)

Katharine Hayhoe is a Canadian climate scientist with a big voice. A professor at Texas Tech University's department of political science and director of the university's Climate Center, Hayhoe has been fervent in communicating the challenges and reality of climate change, as well as the solutions to limiting global warming to 2 C above the pre-industrial average.

Hayhoe's work recently earned her the United Nations 2019 Champions of the Earth award. Nicole Mortillaro spoke to her about the challenges of communicating the realities of climate change.

What are the biggest hurdles for you in getting the message out about climate change?

There is a massively funded and very intelligent disinformation campaign that is trying to muddy the waters on everything that we do. So it is really kind of like the Girl Guides trying to fight the Marines here.

When we first started, we [were] naive. We thought, well, surely the truth will win if we just tell people the truth. But it's such a highly politically polarized topic. And sadly, it isn't just limited to the U.S. anymore. In Canada, it's becoming increasingly politically polarized as well. 

Why do you think it's become politicized?

It's become politicized because, if you go to Wikipedia and you just run your eyes down the list of the richest corporations in the world, No. 1 is Walmart. After Walmart, you have petroleum, petroleum, petroleum, energy, energy, petroleum, petroleum, energy, petroleum. So, we are talking about solutions that are overall beneficial for almost everybody on this planet, with one exception. And the one exception are the industries that currently hold the balance of power and wealth in this world.

Can you change people's minds with facts?

Facts are not what change people's minds because people have made the rejection of climate change part of their personal identity. And so changing their mind about climate change would require them to change their idea of who they are… 

People don't truly have a problem with basic science, because if they did, they would also be rejecting stoves and fridges and airplanes. What they have a problem with is not the actual science. They have a problem with the perceived solution. We see the solution to be liberal, to be socialist, to be — as [former prime minister Stephen] Harper famously put it — the economy versus the environment. We see the only solutions to be harmful and punitive and potentially even worse than the impact, especially in Canada, where many people feel, "Isn't warmer better?"

But the reality is, there are many solutions that are extremely beneficial, that help us improve air quality, reduce our water use, grow the economy, grow local jobs. 

What bothers you the most about climate change science communication?

If we want to have constructive, positive conversations that move the dialogue along, we have to begin that conversation with what we most agree with, with that person, or those people or that organization, rather than what we disagree with her about. Not the Bill Nye approach, but rather the approach where we're looking for common ground.

Those of us who are doing it, it is not part of our job description. It is not part of our daily routine, it is something that we're doing … above and beyond what we're actually doing in terms of our teaching and our research and our service. And it is a woefully, woefully under-supported and underfunded initiative.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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