Years ago, track marking by ‘blazing’ trees was as acceptable as to ‘burn, bash and bury’ your tin food cans. But nowadays treading lightly in the mountains is ingrained in our culture. Once we leave the road end, we stick to the tracks (where they exist), pack out what we pack in and try to leave the land undisturbed. But for most of us, the trip still finishes with a roar of an internal combustion engine and a small, but steady, cloud of greenhouse gas that follows us all the way home… 

Electric vehicles are not a magic bullet to combat climate change, but they are a meaningful way for individuals to significantly reduce their impact. Society’s response to climate change is a complex issue; this article doesn’t seek to provide the solutions, just to stimulate discussion, challenge preconceptions and dispel myths about using EV’s for mountain recreation. 

Photo credit: Kat West

Less is more

In 2006, Bryan Moore and Kat West downsized to a 1300cc Toyota Starlet. Now based in Wanaka, but living in Dunedin at the time, the couple made the decision to reduce their costs of living and environmental impact by changing from two cars to one small car.

Both are accomplished outdoors people: from numerous alpine and rock 1st ascents, to pioneering packraft trips, NZ record paraglider flights and multi-week sea kayaking in Fiordland… You get the drift… Bryan and Kat know how to enjoy themselves and the Starlet wasn’t holding them back. 

According to the US Department of Energy, from 1890-1910 EV’s accounted for “around a third” of all vehicles on US roads. But technological, political and social forces saw internal combustion engines eclipse EVs for the next hundred years. The documentary “Who killed the electric car?” (2006) explained to Kat and Bryan the political forces which stymied the EV from making a comeback in the 90’s, even as contemporary technological challenges were overcome. “Revenge of the electric car” (2011) showed them how a few major car manufacturers overcame the final social hurdles to bring EV’s to the mass market. 

Now that Kat and Bryan could purchase a practical EV for a reasonable price, they nursed along the old Starlet, watching EV prices stabilise and their performance improve. But in 2017, the Starlet finally died at 500,000km and it was a couple of years sooner than planned. A 30kWh battery Nissan Leaf only just met the adventure range requirements they’d set themselves, but they took the leap of faith and haven’t looked back.

It takes a bit of planning

You can buy an expensive ($70,000+) EV with a huge battery and 500km+ range. However, more affordable options such as the Leaf currently have about a 150km day-to-day range (you don’t want to drain the battery to zero very often). Apps and websites (such as detail a rapidly growing network of fast chargers (20 minutes for 0-80% charge) and numerous businesses that allow you to connect to a normal plug for a fee. So with some planning and patience, there are few places in NZ that you can’t get to. Milford sound is one example, but with the trajectory of government support towards electrifying the transport fleet, you can be sure that tourists will soon be driving EV rentals, and Milford will have its fast charger.

Bryan and Kat reasoned that if they really needed a convenient big range, they could car-swap with mates; the novelty of an EV for the weekend was an easy sell. But in the years they’ve owned their Leaf, they have only swapped twice.

Think local

The beauty of having a smaller ‘convenient’ range is that you plan your trips and your lifestyle more mindfully. You creatively look at your local mountains for ridges and valleys between the obvious routes. Shorter drives to obscure destinations, unnamed peaks and unlikely campsites became more inviting than excessively long journeys to ‘classic’ routes. And perhaps, when you live in a place where the nearest crag or ski-field is a long drive, you think more about transitioning to adventures which are suited to your local area. 

Nissan Leaf at Snow Farm; Photo credit: Kat West

Changing attitudes to impact

Kat and Bryan have found that owning an EV has meant that the attitude of critically examining your personal balance of convenience, enjoyment and impact on the planet when driving has spread to other areas of their life. Previously they took a long-haul holiday every 2 years, but now they’ve decided they can’t justify the impact.  Maybe for a multi-month journey they’d allow themselves to go, but certainly not for the 3-4 weeks of leave they’d had as employees. They do acknowledge the personal and societal benefits of travel, such as learning about and respecting other ideas and cultures, as well as having perspective to realise how fantastic New Zealand really is. They also see the hypocrisy in telling young Kiwis not to go overseas, when they’ve had years of exploring the world. But the theme of the message remains: we ought to have the courage to critically examine the impacts of our behaviour and hold ourselves to account for what we have done, or choose to do.   

When they had the time to venture further around NZ in the Leaf, it helped to have more of a road trip approach, than a ‘get there as fast as possible’ one.  Drive over the Lindis, charge at Omarama then up to Mt Cook for a bit of rock climbing at Sebastopol. Then up to Akaroa for some sea kayaking while you visit friends. A few days later, head over to Murchison for a bit of paddling before heading down to Seddonville and the Old Ghost Road adventure.

Sure it takes time, but if we all chose to slowly explore our own country during our annual leave, instead of long-hauling overseas, there’d be a lot less CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere..  

Range anxiety

On longer EV trips in one push, you need to figure out where the fast chargers are, and factor in 20 minutes breaks to your journey.  Battery temperature rises with each fast charge, meaning more than 3-4 in a stretch isn’t good for battery longevity. You can travel a long way in a day, but the extra considerations make you think: do I really need to travel there?  Since buying the Leaf, they have halved the distance they drove in a year, simply by staying local more often. 

But what happens when you run out of charge in the middle of nowhere? The fact that you need to carefully consider your charge means that’s very unlikely: it’s at the end of a trip, close to home, where you’ll conk out. But apart from those who live on an isolated homestead, there will be a charging station, or a house to connect your 3-pin plug for a 30 minute top-up to get you home.  

Who doesn’t regularly spend at least 20 minutes on a trip stopping for a coffee, or post-trip drink? That’s more than enough time for a fast charge, which can almost double the convenient range without an added time penalty. 

The real impact of EV’s

In NZ EV’s are essentially zero emission for fuel, but they are not zero impact. There is criticism over mining practices relating to Lithium, an essential battery component. Increased electricity demand of everyone driving EV’s could contribute pressure towards unwise hydro developments. Questions are raised over the practicality of recycling or replacing batteries. But with exponential growth of EV use, big business is investing big money into efficient re-use and recycling of EV batteries, so this will soon become easier. The simple conclusion: when compared to an internal combustion engine, electric transport is the lesser of the evils.

Looking at the dollars

Ministry of Transport figures predict the whole life cost of an EV to be slightly below, or comparable to an equivalent generation of internal combustion vehicle. But, if you are not in the habit of buying 0-3 year old cars, in the near future a reliable 7-10 year old internal combustion car may still prove cheaper over its life. EV operating and maintenance costs are very low indeed, but the initial outlay is significant, even for the ‘affordable options’. If you drive 20,000km in a year you will save between  $2000 & $3000 in fuel costs so the payback can be quite quick if you have the capital to start with. This is a hurdle for many who would like to do the green thing, but Kat and Bryan decided that they could afford to make the ethical considerations more important than the personal financial ones. It’s hard to imagine a future where the economic argument won’t shift convincingly away from fossil fuelled transport. 

Rapidly developing technology makes the future look bright for outdoor people with EVs, but even now, I’d wager that Bryan and Kat are having more unique adventures than many of us, all on the (mostly) clean electrons powering their wheels.