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Published on October 25th, 2019 | by Jennifer Sensiba

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Do What You Can With What You Have (Even If You Can’t Get An Electric Vehicle)

October 25th, 2019 by  


I’d like to paraphrase a meme I saw recently. It said that the inventor of the gas engine (whoever that really was) probably rode a horse while he was working on that. The meme didn’t say this, but in the early 20th century, horses were actually a big urban pollution problem, with their poop constantly falling all over city streets as more and more crowded in. You can bet some of the street poop came from a horse carrying supplies for engine and auto development, which in turn rid the streets of 99.999% of the manure just a few decades later.

The inventors of the light bulb worked at night using candles and oil or gas lamps. The inventor of steel probably used iron tools. Those of us who advocate for clean energy aren’t hypocrites when we drive gas cars, ride in airplanes, or use gas to heat our houses. We are just using what’s available to get somewhere better.

Or, as Burt Gummer would say, we’re doing what we can with what we got. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I think a lot of the people here would agree that once you get bit by the Tesla bug (or the more generic EV bug), it’s hard to go back. It changes how you view cars. What was once cool is now boring, and in some ways what was once boring, is now cool. It’s a big perspective shift.

But no matter how cheap the most beat up of the used EVs get, not everyone can go out today and buy one. Sometimes, as the Borg would say, “Desire is irrelevant.” When you look at your finances and see that you’re upside down in your current car, that your credit is shot to hell, or that you can’t get into a car payment right now (or all of the above), you can’t simply wish your way out of that hole, even if you wish really, really hard. Continuing to drive a gas vehicle in that situation doesn’t make you a bad person or a sinner.

How I (Re)Learned This Recently

My current 2018 LEAF at Petrified Forest National Park.

I’ve been fortunate to be in a position to enjoy several different EVs, sometimes with help from family. I’ve owned a 2011 Nissan LEAF, a 2013 Chevy Volt, and now a 2018 LEAF. While I’ve had complaints about all of them, they’ve generally all been decent vehicles that did the job day after day without leaving me stranded (except 3 times that were my own damned fault for really pushing the limits).

There are, however, limits to the amount of EV purity I can afford.

I recently started a special project. The plan is to start going out into the rural US to write articles about clean energy and EV developments in “flyover country”. There are a TON of stories out there not getting told, which leads to a vicious cycle. People think there’s no interest in EVs and other clean technology out in the country, so they don’t build infrastructure, so people don’t buy EVs, and there’s nobody to use the infrastructure, so it doesn’t get built, so nobody buys EV, so nobody builds infrastructure, so nobody buys EVs, so… I think you get the point. This is something that needs a kick in the pants.

To make these trips worth it, I can’t afford to stay in hotels (especially in oil country at $300/night). I can’t afford to eat out for every meal, or even most meals. I tried a trip a few months ago planning on tent camping with a propane stove every night, and quickly ran into problems. The cool air screwed up my asthma, and my partner had never camped before. A cheap trip quickly ended up costing far more than I had planned once we ended up getting hotels and buying food. It was a real mess.

To do all this and be able to afford it, I’m going to need an RV of some kind. That’s where the trouble with my need for EV purity really began.

To start with, there are no electric motorhomes in production in the US. Even if there were, the prices for something brand new are far beyond my means. I looked into buying an RV for cheap with a failing gas engine, but the costs of converting such a vehicle to an EV were astronomical, even by RV standards. That idea was a dead end.

There are still considerable charging infrastructure gaps in “Flyover Country”, making towing with a small EV either difficult or impossible in many cases. Screenshot from Plugshare.com

Next, I looked into buying a trailer to pull with an EV. My Nissan LEAF is EPA-rated for 150 miles, but really goes more like 110 miles at rural highway speeds (75-85 MPH here). Even going much slower with a small trailer would severely reduce range, and make it impossible to make it to the next town in many areas, even charging at RV parks. That wouldn’t work, obviously. Plus, the little teardrop camper wouldn’t have a bathroom, and the kitchen is outdoors, while cold air aggravates my asthma worse than it used to. There’s also the 4 children I would be taking at least some of the time on these trips, and little teardrop campers only have room for 2 people to sleep. I’d basically be tent camping.

Next, I looked into pulling a larger, more suitable trailer with a better EV. The only EV currently available with a good towing capacity and enough battery to reasonably tow a family camper is the Tesla Model X. Even the cheapest used examples are out of my price range, and that’s before purchasing a used travel trailer that fits the needs. There are several upcoming suitable tow vehicles coming, like the Rivian pickup and the Bollinger B-1, but they’ll start far too expensive and probably won’t be cheap enough used for around a decade. Unless somebody wants to be really cool and donate a Model X for the cause, that’s not going to fly.

Driving full electric and towing around an RV isn’t going to work for me right now, but that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There are still a range of options to choose from, and some are greener than others.

The Remaining “Impure” Choices

To make sure I don’t overextend myself on this project, I decided to use some tax return money (I’m a procrastinator and I’m filing late) and other money I’ve been setting aside, and pay cash for a modest RV to avoid payments. I’m not afraid to work on my own vehicles, so I can save quite a bit by buying something older. Or, to feel more fancy, let’s call it “vintage.” With a budget of under $10,000, a “vintage” camper is going to be the best choice.

There are a lot of options, and some are better than others.

Smaller motorhomes, based on a 4 or 6-cylinder Toyota pickup, are much more efficient than large motorhomes. A Toyota/Winnebago motorhome at the Spanish River in Ontario, Canada. Image by Diego Atuesta/A Turtle’s Tale. Used with permission.

A big Class A motorhome is affordable if I get an old one and wrench on it a bit, but mostly out of the question. Buying it is one thing; operating it is another thing entirely when it only gets 5-8 MPG. Adding up that gas, I’d be far better off to drive an EV and stay in luxury hotels every night on the road. For example, gas would cost $600 each way visiting family in North Carolina. No thanks! I don’t want to have to consult a financial adviser every time I want to go take a trip. The thing would almost never get used except for the occasional trip within 100 miles.

Other options weren’t much better. Smaller Class B and C motorhomes are mostly in the same boat at around 8 MPG unless you go with the most compact ones (more on that below). Even using a gas vehicle to tow a suitable trailer tends to only get around 10-12 MPG, because you’re hauling a car and a trailer, and you’re only using one at a time.

Motorhomes based on a diesel Mercedes/Dodge Sprinter are better, and can get around 20 MPG, but still cost far more than I can spend or get into payments for. You can buy a lot of gas for $60,000, and I’ve read that maintenance can be a nightmare to boot.

After doing a lot of research, it basically came down to “vintage” compact motorhomes based on a Volkswagen van or small Toyota pickup. These don’t get the great mileage that the Sprinters do, but cost quite a bit less and keep the overall cost of traveling for my projects a lot lower. The Volkswagen ones tend to cost enough to be just outside my spending limit, so I’m basically down to the Toyota. At around 15 MPG, it’s no Prius, but it’s way ahead of the other options I can afford.

It’s the best way to do what I can with what I have for now. Burt would be proud.

The Cleanest Vehicle Is The One That’s Parked

2019 Rad Rover electric bike

My 2019 RadRover eBike will stand in for the RV in many places, further reducing the impact. Testing this is part of a collaborative effort with Fenix Power.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you can save a lot of car impact by not driving it. If one car gets 25 MPG, and another gets 50 MPG, but the owner of the car getting 25 MPG takes a bike half the time, the guy with the Prius ended up creating the same impact as the other guy, if not more.

To help offset the little Yoda’s emissions, I’m going to be keeping a small fleet of electric bikes secured to the back for local exploring. Not only does this shave off some of the miles the little beast would be driving, but we have to also keep in mind that the 15ish MPG is what it gets on the highway. City mileage is probably more like 8-10, so each of those miles saved is like knocking off the impact of almost two highway miles.

On top of that, there’s hypermiling and ecomodding. By driving it right, and by making modifications, it’s possible to get much better mileage than others typically get. Hypermiling costs nothing but time, while ecomodding generally costs very little. 20 MPG is likely an attainable goal with some work, and without the payment on a Sprinter van.

At The End of the Day…

…it all comes down to doing the best you can with what you have. If you can afford an EV that fits your needs, then go for it. If not, get the cleanest thing you can and go with that for now. If someone thinks you’re a hypocrite for caring about the environment and not having the best there is, that’s their problem. They probably drive something much worse and don’t really even care, so why should we care what they think?

What sits in your driveway and in the parking lot at work 20-23.5 hours a day is only one very small part of the overall story of your impact. The trick is to make the whole story a good one and work toward your goals. 
 
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About the Author

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals.



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