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Trailside Charging Stations Are the Future: Polaris Partnership Builds Network to Power Off-Road Adventures

Polaris partnered with Michigan development groups to create an off-road trail network with charging stations in the Upper Peninsula.
Polaris electric EVs charging on a trailside solar-powered charger in Ontonagon, MI(Photo/Daneial Boczarski, Getty Images for Polaris)
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Our caravan of five Polaris Ranger side-by-sides had to cross a bridge over a creek where there was a lone man fishing, enjoying the isolation and peace of the backcountry in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I felt horrible, as I had done for decades when trying to coexist with other outdoor enthusiasts while enjoying off-road motorsports.

But this encounter between us off-road riders and the fisherman was different; he waved. This was the first time I’d ever ridden an off-road vehicle (ORV) within arm’s-length of any human-powered outdoor enthusiast and received anything but negativity. Our group was aboard electric Polaris Ranger XP Kinetic side-by-sides (SxS), with little noise and no exhaust.

After decades of incredulously exercising my right to access approved trails aboard internal combustion dirt bikes, I got used to the disapproval of others enjoying the same wild spaces. Especially when I was in groups, which I often was for safety. And, embarrassingly, I wore ear plugs to protect my own hearing while simultaneously rationalizing that the noise was to be tolerated by others.

As a rock climber, I’ve enjoyed remote cliffs in stunning wilderness locations. However, dirt bikers have shattered the sounds of birds and wind rustling through trees. My climbing partners shot a knowing and disapproving look my way. Yes, that was me on other days.

Although I would defend my right to ride in these places, I understood it changed our wilderness experience. Often, the birds would remain silent, or other wildlife would leave the area for a long time.

But this excursion was different. The only sounds were from tire knobs deforming and the faint hum of the electric powertrain. There were no fumes and, notably, no yelling to return the politeness to the fisherman or conversing with co-drivers.

The Problem With Electric Off-Road Vehicles

Polaris Ranger Kinetic XPs charging on a Polaris charging station
The fully electric Polaris Ranger Kinetic XP; (photo/Daniel Boczarski, Getty Images for Polaris)

The current issue with any electric ORV that I’ve tried is the range. Compared to gas-powered ORVs, the range on any electric ORV I’ve tested has been abysmal.

The electric trail bikes I’ve ridden all required judicious use of the throttle, especially on loose soil or sand, to ensure returning to the trailhead. Three hours and 60 miles is my high mark to date, and this was aboard an e-moto that was more of a cross between a mountain bike and motorcycle than it was a true dirt bike.

Even the Polaris Ranger XP Kinetic, being several hundred pounds heavier than its gas counterpart, is limited to 40-80 miles. This depends on the aggressiveness of driving, terrain, and all the other things a driver doesn’t have to worry about as much with a gas vehicle. And, even then, hauling extra fuel on both two wheels and four isn’t difficult and is a regular occurrence. Not so with batteries.

But Polaris, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), and locals in the Ontonagon area of the Upper Peninsula (UP) exercised amazing cooperation to address this limitation of electric ORVs.

Working Together to Create a First

Polaris off-road EV charging station
A Polaris off-road EV charging station with a single solar panel array; (photo/Seiji Ishii)

In June 2023, the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification (an office within the MEDC) granted Polaris a $700,000 Mobility Public-Private Partnership Programming Grant (MP4). This helped fund the development and maintenance of an off-road electric charging network.

The appointed task was to create free-to-use electric ORV charging stations to service a 100-mile trail network in the woods of Ontonagon County, which sits on the shores of Lake Superior.

Incredibly, in less than a year, Polaris and its partners created exactly that. The trail network now has four modular, solar-powered charging stations. They can be self-supporting, strictly charging from batteries, or they can be connected to the grid. When connected to the grid, when the onboard batteries are full, the excess energy contributes to the local power grid.

The result is the world’s first off-road riding area that can support electric ORVs with charging opportunities, minimizing the limited range. Right now, only one nearby outfitter provides electric SxS rentals: Polaris Adventures Outfitter, Hamilton’s North Coast Adventures.

Polaris and the partners in this project are ahead of the times. Electric ORVs have not yet hit the off-road masses, and it’s hard to discern the chicken and the egg scenario. Is electrified off-road adventuring yet to expand due to vehicle limitations or lack of infrastructure?

It is most likely equal parts of both. However, in the UP of Michigan, both sides of the equation have been solved. But this is only one location.

The Polaris Charging Stations

A Polaris off-road EV charging station with dual solar panel arrays
Charging up at lunch on a Polaris off-road EV charging station with dual solar panel arrays; (photo/Seiji Ishii)

The four charging stations are crucial to the UP electrified trail network. They must be shipped to rural locations, often over dirt roads. And, of course, the station must survive all environmental possibilities.

In the UP, this can mean stifling heat and humidity in the summers, monsoon-like rains in the shoulder seasons, and snow and ice in winter. Maintenance requirements must be low, as some locations might be difficult to get to, especially in the dead of winter.

Enter Yotta Energy

The herculean design task fell to Austin, Texas-based Yotta Energy. It came up with a simple yet high-tech charging station. The basis of the charging station is the ubiquitous 20-foot shipping container. It not only forms the foundation of the operating charging station, but it’s also the storage container for all the required components. It is also its own easily transported, robust shipping package.

The understated Yotta charging station only requires three to four people to deploy. From the highly insulative exterior facade to the actual solar panels, each takes about 48 hours of total set-up time. A scissor lift and powered hand tools make the job much easier, although neither is necessary.

Polaris electric ORV charging on a Polaris charging station
Fueling up an electric ORV looks like this; (photo/Daniel Boczarski, Getty Images for Polaris)

The Yotta charging station can act as a freestanding, self-contained unit, relying only on its internal batteries and hybrid inverters. Alternatively, it can connect to the local electrical grid. While charging at a connected station for lunch, a Polaris employee showed me an app tracking the charging station’s status.

With cloudy skies and five Polaris Ranger Kinetic XPs charging, the charging station battery was being concurrently fed by the solar panels. The app also showed that the station had been contributing power to the grid whenever there weren’t vehicles attached.

There are two versions of the Yotta shipping container charging station. The larger has two solar panel arrays, one facing east and the other facing south. Another smaller version has only one array, which faces south. The larger version has twice the energy storage capacity as the smaller one.

Interestingly, the solar panel array’s upper and lower surfaces both provide charging current. This is important in the winter months, as a substantial amount of solar energy reflects upward from the snow.

These Polaris charging stations can charge any electric vehicle (EV). Indeed, I saw local residents using them to fuel their passenger EVs.

Polaris Charging Stations: Electrified Trail Network Future

Polaris Ranger Kinetic XPs on a trail
Imagine you are hiking, and a train of ORVs crosses your path. Now imagine all you can hear is gravel crunching under tires; (photo/Daniel Boczarski, Getty Images for Polaris)

The fisherman’s smile and waving were impactful to me. Motorsports has been a cornerstone of my life, but I always harbored a little shame and guilt about the noise and fumes I was bringing into wild areas.

When I realized the fisherman was happy to share space, my mind went to a yet-determined future. A future when electric ORVs and off-road enthusiasts peacefully coexist with other outdoor recreation. I envisioned quietly riding by on my electric dirt bike, deer looking up unfazed. And this dirt bike is equally low-impact and as welcome as a mountain bike.

I explore hundreds of miles of trails, almost silently traversing expansive terrain, with much of the wildlife unaware. I can speak to my riding buddy at a conversational volume if I choose to speak at all. Decades of yelling recede into memory, and I’ve long since had to wear earplugs.

When I need a charge, I navigate to a self-sufficient charging station like Yotta’s to eat lunch and hydrate. Maybe I’ll hike around and explore a bit by foot. After all, this electric ORV area is definitely quiet. I unplug after sufficient charging and wave as a fisherman in a passenger EV approaches to use the free resource.

“Sure do appreciate you off-roaders bringing these charging stations to this neck of the woods. I had to drive all the way to town before! This is great. Enjoy the rest of your ride!”

How Do We Make This Happen?

All that needs to happen is to replicate and scale up the program in the UP. Yes, this is a big undertaking. But imagine riding with nothing but the sound of the tires, maybe the chain, and the wind blowing through your helmet. And it’s the same for the other user groups.

This seems worth it to me, and I know it’s at least partially up to us. We can vote with our wallets by purchasing electric ORVs. Becoming active area trail-riding groups and clubs with the same goals will also help.

Maybe, one day, our paths will cross out there. Keep your eyes open, as you won’t hear me coming.

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