Hitting the Government’s target of EVs replacing 30 percent of the internal combustion engine light vehicles on our roads by 2035 will require a massive fleet conversion. But a small Dunedin firm is doing its bit one ute at a time.

James Hardisty is a recovered petrolhead.

To be precise, he’s kicked his fossil-fuel habit: in his internal combustion engine (ICE) phase, he would happily guzzle either petrol or diesel.

“I love my V8s and my fast cars – I used to drive a 5.8 litre V8 diesel – but I was normally too cheap to drive anything fancy.”

Unless your definition of fancy is a Ford F-350 Super Duty pickup truck with the world’s biggest mass-produced petrol engine. A common sight on US roads, the F-350 dwarfs New Zealand’s top-selling vehicle of 2021, the Ford Ranger ute.

“It would eat a Ranger for breakfast – it was huge,” Hardisty says. Testament to its thirst were its twin fuel tanks.

But that was then. Today, Hardisty, an electrician and a director of small Dunedin business EV-lution, is a Tesla driver. He’s also eager to help ute owners leave the ICE age behind without having to scrap their workhorses.

To prove the concept, he’s converting a 1980s-vintage Toyota Hilux that he bought for a song to battery power. It won’t be cheap – he guesses the parts, labour and compliance costs will total about $100,000 – but once running it will be more powerful than the original vehicle and have a range of about 250km.

He’s under no illusions that farmers and tradies will be flocking to EV-lution at that price.

“It’s super-niche because it’s very expensive. It’s a big undertaking. The battery and the motor are expensive enough and then there’s the cost of all the engineering hours to put it together.

“But the Hilux is intended as a showcase of what can be done. You’ll find old relics like these on farms all over the country and I can envisage making a conversion kit for them for maybe $50,000.”

James Hardisty and the Toyota Hilux he is converting to battery power. Photo: Anthony Doesburg

Making it affordable is a question of scale.

“When you do five or more you can quickly make savings,” he says.

Being able to buy batteries in quantity and limiting their capacity would help keep the costs down. A typical tradie needing to drive about 150km a day would be the ideal market for a converted ute with a moderate-sized battery, Hardisty says.

EV conversions are a sideline for Hardisty and business partner Hagen Bruggemann. Their bread and butter is selling residential and commercial solar-power systems that may or may not be connected to the electricity grid.

Harvesting photons – that is, installing some solar panels – would be the icing on the cake for a farmer with a converted ute, supplying CO2-free battery power.

The first vehicle Hardisty converted was one of the most-polluting cars on the road, a smoke-blowing 1975 Daihatsu Max with a two-cylinder two-stroke engine. The car was free, he transplanted a second-hand electric motor into it with a tiny battery and range to match and for $10,000 ended up with “a cool wee car for around town”.

He says he fields about a dozen calls a month from people enquiring about converting cars to battery power. The company’s preference is to supply the parts for vehicle owners to carry out their own conversions, and there is a sizeable and capable DIY community doing backyard fit-outs.

“New Zealand is a country of tinkerers and there are a lot of pretty skilled people messing with these things. There are people doing it semi-commercially.”

Apart from the engineering, there’s also the vehicle certification hurdle to jump.

“There’s a standard to meet and it’s pretty intense. And then you have to pay the certifier an arm and a leg – the costs all start adding up right about then.”

Converting the fleet

If the Government subsidised the conversion of ICE vehicles to EVs, that would help, Hardisty says.

“Even if it paid the compliance cost – maybe a couple of grand – that would be fantastic. I think a lot of farmers would say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that and do my ute.’

“I think there would be a lot of change pretty quickly.”

But the scale of change needed to meet a Ministry for the Environment vehicle emissions target set in May is huge. As part of the country’s 2050 zero-carbon goal (excluding methane from farming), it wants to cut transport emissions by 41 percent from 2019 levels by 2035.

The plan relies on converting 30 percent of the light-vehicle fleet to zero-emissions models. In a fleet of five million vehicles, that would mean 1.5 million EVs. Last year, about 7000 EVs were sold in New Zealand.

Janet Stephenson, acting director of the University of Otago’s centre for sustainability, has already made the switch. One of her household’s vehicles, a Honda Insight driven daily by her husband, has had the EV-lution treatment and the other is an EV.

In 2019, she published a study that showed Dunedin, at 5.38 per 1000 residents, had the highest EV uptake in the country, ahead of Wellington and Christchurch. She doesn’t know whether that still holds true.

“It’s very common to see electric vehicles when you’re driving around but we haven’t crunched the numbers to see whether Dunedin is still leading.”

Although buying an EV off the showroom floor is now cheaper than when her husband’s car underwent its “expensive and tricky” retrofit, she can see the merit of converting ICE vehicles when their embedded energy is taken into account.

“You’re throwing away their dirty internal combustion engine and many other mechanical parts but there is still a lot of energy in the remaining materials that you’re converting to a new use. When you think of a circular economy then retrofitting is a good idea.

“It’s a small part of the solution but every bit helps.”

ICE man liveth

Fossil-fuelled vehicles contain not only embedded energy but also tap into a large vein of nostalgia, which was on full display in the queue waiting for the doors to open at Autospectacular, Dunedin’s annual car show, on September 10.

Among the dozens of exhibits was a restored 1983 Holden VH Commodore owned by Conan Mitchell, who likes nothing better after a day’s work than firing up the five-litre V8 and going for a cruise.

Conan Mitchell … winds down from work by going for a cruise in his V8 Commodore. Photo: Anthony Doesburg

He would happily drive an EV but for the fact that his work retrofitting wall insulation can see him covering 800km a day from where he lives in Caversham to Geraldine in the north and Central Otago in the west.

No EV on the market could cover that distance without a battery charge, adding at least an hour to an already long day.

Many people – a Facebook group for Otago Holden enthusiasts has close to 1000 members – share his affection for the classic petrolhead marque. On a club run this month to mark the anniversary of the death of Peter Brock, the Australian racing driver and patron saint of Holden lovers, a 70-car convoy toured roads around Dunedin.

If it’s V8 grunt they crave, says Hardisty, a quick spin in an EV might be all it takes to convert them.

“Even the cheapest Nissan Leaf, one of the lowest-spec EVs out there, will eat your souped-up boy-racer car at the lights. Once you start driving electric and realise it’s the best thing ever, you don’t look back. I’ve loved them since I was a boy.

“With petrol cars, the thing everyone talks about is how much they cost to drive. Electric cars are cheap to drive, have heaps of power and their range is getting good enough.

“That will spell the death of the petrol car.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

Anthony Doesburg is a Dunedin-based freelance journalist.

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