Electric campervans for Australian conditions

We were tent campers on our Cooktown trip, as we usually are, but saw plenty of campervans and have happy memories of our campervan trip around Tasmania late last year. I have also been following the EV-versus-ICE (internal combustion engine) debate for some time so I was well primed to notice a Facebook post about a very advanced solar-powered Dutch campervan when it appeared in my news feed soon after we got home.

dutch campervan
The Facebook post

The story linked to the post gives the main specs and some more photos. It’s an impressive vehicle: only two seats and two berths but very fully equipped. My first response, though, was, “If they can do it in rainy cloudy Holland, we can certainly do it here – better and cheaper, too.

Still in holiday mode, I then spent some time looking into whether, and how, we might do something similar here with off-the-shelf components.

Here are my results. They might look tidy on the page but they are really back-of-an-envelope calculations so don’t trust them too far. Like the Dutch team, “[My] main goal is to really inspire people and the market and society to accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable future. What [I’m] trying to do is to show people … what’s already possible.”

Starting points

We will need a vehicle body, an electric battery and drive train, a campervan fit-out and some solar panels. As far as I know it’s not yet possible to buy this combination ready-made but we can play mix and match.

Camper van bodies are normally delivery vans, with the Toyota Hi-Ace and Hyundai i-Load being common bases for smaller campers.

New electric delivery vans are hitting the market overseas (e.g. in the UK) but seem to be a year or two away for Australia (e.g. Ford Transit, Ace). On the other hand, enterprising Aussies are already retrofitting ICE vehicles as EVs. I haven’t seen any advertisements specifically offering the service for vans but I assume that it’s possible and not much different in price – if people are brave enough to convert a De Lorean, a Hi-Ace should be easy.

Campervan fit-outs of existing vehicles are also offered. A quick internet search brings up lots of results but not many prices; the few I’ve seen suggest that $15,000 is in the ball-park for a smallish camper (bunks, kitchen and dining but no bathroom or toilet). A super-cheap DIY job might come in under $2,000; a big luxury job might be $50,000 plus, but anyone in that market might also consider getting their whole vehicle imported or custom built.

Options

Using best-guess prices after an hour or two wandering around the internet:

  1. New EV van + campervan fit-out = $55K + $15K = $70K
  2. New ICE van + EV conversion + campervan fit-out = $55K + $15K + $15K = $85K
  3. Secondhand ICE van + EV conversion + campervan fit-out $30K + $15K + $15K = $65K
  4. Secondhand ICE campervan + EV conversion $40K + $15K = $55K

Option 1 looks good except that you have to wait until 2022 or 2023 because the vans aren’t here just yet. Option 2 is just silly. Why buy a new van and throw out the motor and gearbox straight away?

That leaves 3 and 4. A bit of online shopping reveals quite a few ex-rental campervans on the market, not very old but with lots of kilometres on their clocks and prices to match. They appear to be good value compared to secondhand vans of similar age.

Option 3 may still have advantages, however. For one thing, the best/cheapest EV conversion may place the battery under a false floor, in which case any existing fit-out would have to be extensively altered. For another, the EV battery is so powerful that the existing secondary battery, and perhaps the gas stove, will be totally redundant and once again the fit-out would need to be altered.

Solar roof panels

The Dutch project is, in principle at least, totally independent of the grid. That’s a good thing, particularly in this land of range anxiety. We could go some way towards achieving it here by mounting a few solar panels to the camper roof (it might be best to avoid a pop-up roof).

The Eindhoven team managed to fit 8.8 square metres of panels on their roof and it gave them an extra 130 km range ‘on a sunny day’, i.e. one day’s generation gave them that much distance. We wouldn’t have that much roof space but might manage half as much.

We could double it, as the Dutch did, by having a pull-out second set of panels for when the vehicle is in camping mode. If that’s too hard, a trip to any camping shop will get you as many auxiliary panels as you like for $1.50 – $3.00 per watt and you can spread them around your camp site as you like.

This part of the project is quite cheap – $2000 should cover it.

The bottom line

The Dutch project built on Eindhoven’s years of experience in developing solar-powered vehicles, and twenty people still took six months to complete their showpiece. It’s lovely but I don’t think it would be cheap.

Anyone starting with an empty parking spot should at least consider options 3 and 4. If not in a hurry, waiting a year or so and adopting option 1 wouldn’t add much to the cost and should be better value, given that everything about the project would be optimised.

Anyone starting with a good ICE van or campervan with a tired engine or blown gearbox (or able to source one) could go electric quite easily and cheaply right now, as an early adopter. The result would be a practical, economical camper for Australian conditions.

Neither of these would be completely self-sufficient for power but they might come close, and their savings on fuel costs and CO2 emissions would make them well worth while.

And they will never run out of fuel: if they produce 60 – 100 kilometres-worth of power per day, we might get hungry if we were stuck in the desert with a flat battery but we could drive home eventually.

Am I tempted?

Not yet, because at this stage I’m only an occasional short-trip camper. If I were thinking of travelling often enough to warrant owning a campervan, however, it would be a different story.

Afterthoughts

I put the above up for discussion on social media and got some good responses, which I have tidied up and put here for completeness.

(1) Sun vs shade

Peter: It seems pretty clear now that a good sized array of solar panels can charge batteries over a couple of days for a 400km-ish range. That would seem to be a good set of numbers for grey nomads who might like to drive for a day and then stay put for a bit. The trouble is, that no-one would want to camp out in the sun. So a roof full of solar panels on a van could be a useful range extender, but for full charging, we’d be looking at either charging from the mains or from charging stations, or devising a small trailer with a fold out solar array which could be left in the sun while the actual van is in the shade of a tree.

Malcolm: Yes, that sun/shade issue occurred to me, too. It’s not a problem when you’re actually on the road, but when you’re camping…

Bernie: Use portable panels: park in the shade and put the panels in the (nearby) sun. I do it all the time for the fridge in the 4×4

Malcolm: That sounds better than a trailer but I think we would want 4 – 6 sq metres to recharge the van battery and most camp-site portable PV set-ups are much smaller. Some compromises may be needed.

(2) Life-cycle environmental cost

Michael: For vehicles that need to be driven a lot such as taxis, the lower emissions of an electric vehicle fortunately outweighs the extra environmental cost to build it, relative to a petrol vehicle.
In the case of a vehicle which by its nature is not driven a lot – such as most campervans – the higher environmental cost of building the electric vehicle (especially the battery) dominates, and this unfortunately causes it to have a worse environmental footprint over its lifecycle, relative to a petrol version.

Malcolm: Good point, Michael – thanks. Following it to its logical conclusion, though, takes us to the ‘ex-rental campervans’ I mentioned as the starting point for a conversion and says something like, “Hey! 300 000 km in five years? Electric rental vans are obviously a brilliant idea!”
It’s not what I had in mind, and as you say a normal private van doesn’t usually do great distances, but it’s worth thinking about.

Michael: It’s all about the break-even distance at which the electric is better than the petrol. The break-even distance is higher for heavier vehicles. Yes, a rental electric camper-van is generally going to get driven quite a lot, so is likely better for the environment than a petrol one.

(3) How sustainable is such a project, really?

Mary: What bothers me … and I have an electric car … is I can’t find anyone who recycles the batteries nor the solar inverter, which is strange as its main component is a huge lump of aluminium. I wonder how much good I’m actually doing…

Malcolm: You’re right to be concerned, Mary, and right when you say we need to consume less, but people have done the sums on life-cycle environmental costs of petrol vs electric vehicles (and on coal vs solar/wind for electricity) and the benefits are proven. Also, the recycling market for the newer technologies is only just getting under way as the first generation of solar panels, inverters, batteries, wind turbines, etc, reach the end of their working lives. Look at this and this if you want to see the comparisons.

But the broader question is fairly simple: “How much can we consume and still have any hope of a carbon-neutral world?” A detailed answer is complicated (I attempted it six months ago in How can I decarbonise my life?) but the short answer is, “As little as possible.” It may stretch to rental vans for occasional use or private vans for grey nomads but it shouldn’t include a campervan of any kind as a second or third vehicle of any normal household.

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