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Stella Vita solar-powered RV
Stella Vita solar-powered RV (Image by Bart van Overbeeke and Solar Team Eindhoven)

Clean Power

The Perfect RV Hasn’t Been Created Yet…Oh, Wait, It Has: The Solar-Powered Stella Vita

If you’ve been following my articles or my social media, you’ve probably seen me struggle to find the perfect RV. On the one hand, having a large RV with room for the whole family, pets, bikes, and everything would be great, but it comes at a cost. Getting 5-10 MPG on a 1000-mile trip means it costs $600 in fuel. Sure, you could spend that money on hotels along the way and have a lower carbon and pollution impact, but there are many places where there is no hotel, or you just want to be closer to nature.

There are workarounds to this “RV=pollution” formula. You can tent camp in an EV (which has been the plan I’m drifting towards), and you avoid all of the crazy weight. This isn’t a great option if you need to bring feline friends along, but our canine family members would be fine with that. The upcoming electric trucks, like a Rivian, F-150 Lightning, or Tesla Cybertruck will all be able to tow RV trailers, but while power isn’t a problem, range will be a huge issue in rural areas.

Obviously, we’re going to have to rethink the idea of RVs a bit in the transition to clean and sustainable energy.

Dutch Students Show Us Another Path To Clean RVing

 

Solar Team Eindhoven, a team of Dutch university students, decided to take a radically different approach to RVing when they built the solar-powered Stella Vita RV. Unlike most people building RVs, the team doesn’t have to worry about quarterly sales figures and selling inefficient RVs that fit the existing RV market. In other words, they’re not competing against gas and diesel-powered coach builders.

Before this latest project, the team focused on winning solar vehicle races and other competitive solar vehicle events. When you’re limited to the relatively low power levels that onboard solar panels can provide, you need to get rid of every inefficiency you can to win races. This means you need the best aerodynamic shaping, low rolling resistance tires, and minimal weight, among other things. Instead of aiming for the best overall times, the team appears to have concentrated more on practical cars that can hold multiple passengers, but it still took trophies home from the World Solar Challenge in the Cruiser class four times in a row.

The team took their past experience with this and applied it to building an RV. They started out with a low-profile, highly aerodynamic car, not unlike a solar racer. Normally, this wouldn’t give any space for the things RVers want, like being able to stand up in the vehicle, sleep on a bed, or sit at a table. But when you build a vehicle with that much interior space, you can’t get the aerodynamic efficiency needed to travel on solar power. To solve this conundrum, they built it with a pop-up roof, like many camper vans.

Stella Vita solar-powered RV

 

This leaves enough space for a bed, table, and even a shower inside. Sure, you’re not going to take a group of six people across a continent with this vehicle, but for two people, it’s got everything you need.

They even used this popup arrangement to allow for even more solar power. When the solar roof pops up to allow for more interior space, more solar panels slide out the sides, nearly tripling the solar power. So when someone is parked, they can add more range to the batteries and support other uses of electricity at the campsite.

With the efficiency and the solar cells, the solar-powered Stella Vita RV could travel up to 450 miles in a day (730 km). That might not seem like much, but at 65 MPH, that’s 7 hours of driving. At slower speeds (which may be needed to achieve maximum range), that’s probably as long as anybody would want to drive in a day. When you add breaks for lunch, restroom breaks, etc., more range can be achieved by deploying the extra solar panels for a few minutes.

Stella Vita solar-powered RV

But Does It Work In The Real World?

To prove that it works in fact and not just in theory, the students took it on a trip through Europe.

The students took a trip from their hometown down to the bottom of Spain, making stops along the way in cities and towns to show off the vehicle and inspire students, politicians, and people working in the automobile industry. With all of the stops, the journey took over a month and stretched 3000 kilometers (1800 miles).

What we haven’t learned from this is whether the vehicle can consistently travel long distances like many RV owners would want. As long as the sun’s out, it obviously could cover great distances, but we don’t know if traveling long days each day for several days in a row would be too much for it, and there’s not good information on solar system wattage, battery capacity, or other specs.

What The RV Industry Can Learn From This

One thing is for sure: the RV industry can learn a lot from this. Buyers wouldn’t want a vehicle that can only drive when the sun’s out consistently, so an RV of this type would require some sort of charging port, and likely DC fast charging to be 100% useful. Even on grid power, an efficient solar vehicle could use a lot less electricity than a Cybertruck or F-150 Lightning pulling even a small trailer. Plus, if you want to camp off-grid and have good sunlight, you could leave the campsite with more range than you left with.

We need to encourage manufacturers to work on more efficient electric RVs, both for couples and for families. There’s no reason that RVs must be big, square, heavy, and fuel- or electricity-guzzling machines. With efficient shapes, light weights, and solar power, they can give people what they need for camping without struggling to make it to their destinations or forcing owners to drive short days and charge at every RV park between them and the destination.

The RV industry should take a page out of the Aptera playbook and make an efficient RV for people who enjoy RVing, but who don’t want to destroy the very nature they’re out to enjoy.

Image courtesy of Aptera

Featured image and other images of Stella Vita by Bart van Overbeeke and Solar Team Eindhoven.

 
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Written By

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. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things: https://twitter.com/JenniferSensiba

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