By Tapio Mainio
"It's already running," grunts project chief Tuomas Alakunnas as I fumble around for the ignition key.
The snowmobile starts silently and moves in a ghostly fashion in the forest near the laboratory in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle.
The sensation is similar to when I drove an electric forklift as a summer worker in the Port of Helsinki.
There is no stench of petrol and no loud noise like there is on my own snowmobile with its two-stroke engine.
"A cross-country skier puffing his way uphill makes more sound than this electric snowmobile," says Jyrki Niva, CEO of Lapland Safaris.
The largest organiser of snowmobile safaris in Finnish Lapland plans to test the use of the electric snowmobiles for tourism purposes next winter.
Last winter about 100,000 winter tourists either drove or rode as pillion passengers on the company's snowmobiles. Most of them were from outside Finland.
Many of them are looking for silence and nature experiences in Finnish Lapland.
"An electric snowmobile is quite suitable for that world. In spite of the negative image, snowmobiling remains the most popular activity for our tourists," Niva says.
Designer Tomi Ahmasalo opens the hood of the electric snowmobile in the Arctic Power Laboratory of the Rovaniemi University of Applied Sciences.
The petrol engine has been replaced by a small electric motor which resembles a car's space heater.
"Most of the space is taken by the lead batteries, which supply enough power for a trip of about 30 kilometres in the snow. In addition, the energy output can be regulated steplessly, which is important when the driver is an inexperienced tourist," Ahmasalo says.
The electric snowmobile works well for the popular three-hour safaris, which cover about 20 kilometres.
Ahmasalo says that snowmobile manufacturers have not produced a suitably "gentle" four-stroke safari snowmobile.
"There are two-stroke versions, but that technology is becoming obsolete," he says.
The main source of funding for the electric snowmobile project, which is to extend to 2012, is the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and innovation (TEKES).
Also involved are Lapland Safaris, European Batteries, Fortum, as well as local electric utilities and the snowmobile manufacturer BRP Finland in Rovaniemi.
"We are involved because electricity is becoming increasingly common as a source of power for various vehicles," says BRP Scandinavia's sales director Pekka Ohenoja.
Mass production of the electric snowmobiles will have to wait. The first ones have been assembled by engineers of the Rovaniemi University of Applied Sciences.
"When the first two snowmobiles were shown at the Rovaniemi Snowmobile Fair at the weekend, people nearly walked away with them", says Ari Karjalainen, head of the research laboratory.
Finland has about 120,000 petrol-engined snowmobiles in use. Last year 4,200 new ones were sold.