Bumps in the Road as Hawaii Plugs In
It’s easy to see an electric future in Hawaii, where Nissan LEAFs and Chevy Volts are seen zipping through palm-shaded boulevards, rental companies are showing interest, and two companies—OptConnect and Volta Industries—are installing a lot of public charging to complement aggressive government efforts. Expensive gasoline and readily available renewable power are two more incentives to plug in.
In fact, Hawaii has made an excellent start, but as detailed in a new report, “Electric Vehicle Paradise,” (PDF) there are still many barriers and obstacles that have to be overcome.
Dan Davids, board chair of Plug In America and a part-time Hawaii resident, said at the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit here, “The Electric Auto Association has a Hawaii chapter, there are active EV owner groups on all the islands, and Plug In America has been active for six years. Hawaii is firing on all cylinders with EVs, but success is not assured.”
According to the report, the hurdles include:
- High electric rates that hover around 42 cents per kilowatt hour, and thus expensive grid recharging;
- An ongoing lack of charging infrastructure, especially fast charging and especially on the less-populated islands;
- Lack of choice: Many new EVs are not available in the islands, and premiums are sometimes slapped on electric models;
- A need for public awareness of electric car advantages.
None of these are insurmountable obstacles. According to Ethan Elkind of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (a co-author of the report), “Hawaii has easily solvable problems. We went island by island to see where the problems were.”
Government and energy policy has to be in sync. Obviously, there’s synergy between the rooftop solar that’s increasingly common in sunny Hawaii and an electric car charging off the grid, but Elkind points to caps in net metering laws that limit to 15 percent the residents who can sell electricity back to utilities. “The defacto cap has to be addressed because it’s preventing people from buying EVs,” he said.
Davids says there are 1,783 EVs on the islands now, with the bulk of them in populous Oahu. More have been sold in 2013 to date than in any previous year. But sales would likely be exploding if some of the barriers are removed. Hawaii’s Big Island is a good case study.
Big Island, Big Obstacles
Doug Teeple is founder of the Big Island EV Association and owns both a LEAF and a 1972 VW Karmann Ghia conversion. He counts perhaps 100 EVs on the island, which is twice the size of the others combined. But being the size of Connecticut, with only 12 public chargers, means that owners (70 of whom are members of the association) can’t easily drive between the major towns of Hilo and Kona.
Teeple also points out that the Big Island’s 60 LEAF owners had to buy their cars in Maui and have them shipped over at a premium, because the local Nissan dealer declines to sell them. And a service technician has to be brought over from Maui for six-month maintenance visits.
Still, Teeple is organizing public education events, and he says the interest in EVs is growing. “It’s all about getting out and being seen,” he said. “And our organization is campaigning for infrastructure, especially fast chargers. With nine or 10, we could cover the island.”
Visibility certainly helps. Anne Ku, project director of the Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance (and the other report co-author), points to a cluster effect—for every EV sold in Hawaii, five people are brought into dealerships by word of mouth.
On Maui, both Enterprise and Bio Beetle rent electric cars. Hawaii gets eight million visitors a year, and if they rent electric it also has a multiplier effect when those tourists go home. And EVs should also become much more visible with the high-profile $30 million Jump Start Maui project (involving Hitachi and others), which aims to integrate EV owners into a new smart grid.
A Plug-In Microgrid for Lana'i
Exciting things are happening in Hawaii. The island of Lana’i, mostly owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison, is likely to become a “little laboratory” for a renewable microgrid featuring electric cars. There’s only one charging station on Lana’i (which has a population of just 3,000) now, but it’s a start. Residents pay 47 cents a kilowatt hour for grid electricity, so a microgrid would be more than welcome.
Some of Hawaii’s hurdles are downright bizarre, such as OptConnect’s smart card problems with the chargers it inherited from now-defunct Better Place. But OptConnect and one of its investors, the progressive Ulupono Initiative, are replacing those units and putting $650,000 into new Mark II chargers for Hawaii. As Davids said, the electric motor is turning in Hawaii, and now it just has to get over some bumps in the road.
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