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Perfecting Paradise: Hawaii Plugs in to Electric Cars

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Aloha! I’m not actually in Hawaii. I wish. I know Car Talk looks like a permanent party in the islands, with a Jimmy Buffett record playing and a pitcher of margaritas always at the ready, but in fact the setting for all of us is a world away—New England, where the humorless pilgrims (my ancestors!) spread a message about sinners in the hands of an angry God.

EV charging at the Kahala Mall on Oahu. (Coconut Wireless photo/Flickr)But I have been to Hawaii twice in recent years, so I speak Parrot Head or whatever it is they call it. Both my parents spent a lot of time in Hawaii before I was born, and my mother’s family had the distinction of being bombed at Pearl Harbor. And what’s happening down there now is funny, though not in a ha-ha way. Instead of simply working on their tans, the laid-back Hawaiians are working hard to bring electric cars—the natural choice—to their islands.
 
In the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that I am an informal (that means unpaid) advisor to the Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance (MEVA) at the University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC). From my vantage point high in the frozen north, I’ve tried to be helpful with resources and contacts. It's a strategic win, because Maui hosts one of the top five electric vehicle initiatives in the U.S.
 
It seems to me that Hawaii could not be more strategically primed for plug-in cars. Gas is expensive (they feel lucky to pay $4 a gallon) and has to be imported from the mainland. Renewable energy resources, in the form of wind and solar, are abundant. Combine EVs with sustainable electricity options and it’s a win-win for the islands. Plus, there’s big state government buy-in, and a huge tourism and hotel business ready and willing to build a green image.
 
A Tesla charging at the University of Hawaii' on Clean Energy Day in 2009. (Kanaka Menehune/Flickr)EVs in Hawaii are moving ahead, though as elsewhere with a trickle not a flood. According to Anne Ku, MEVA’s director and a lecturer at UHMC, there are maybe 110 to 120 EVs in Maui and 700 in Hawaii total. Some are neighborhood electrics, glorified golf carts used by the resorts. The EVs are mostly in Oahu, where the biggest auto dealer network is based. That count includes the neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) that resorts use to ferry people around. Real electric cars are still scarce on the ground, and that’s why Ku tells me that most Hawaiian journalists reporting on the emergence of this nascent industry have never actually driven an EV.
 
The Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i are now available in Hawaii, but not everywhere—Maui, for instance, may be the number one tourist destination in the world, but it lacks a Mitsubishi dealership. Cars can, of course, be bought in Honolulu and shipped to the other islands. Service isn’t much of an issue because, well, electric cars don’t need a whole lot of servicing. They may not even make funny noises, which could put Car Talk out of business. The same thing's true of hydrogen cars, which are also gaining a foothold in Hawaii, thanks to a supply of byproduct hydrogen that can be tapped for fuel-cell cars.
 
A General Motors fuel-cell car is part of a new pilot program. (GM photo)I collected a range of Hawaiian voices to get a sense of how things are moving. Byron Washom, who is making EVs happen at the University of California-San Diego and is also a MEVA advisor, says that Maui is “talking the talk, walking the walk and driving the drive.” He points to hotel chains installing charging stations (the Four Seasons, Marriott, Sheraton and Westin are all on board, says Ku), EV rental through Enterprise and Bio-Beetle, Mike Snyder’s independent Chevy Volt rental business, and more. Did I mention that MEVA is sharing in a $300,000 Department of Energy EV grant, and plans to use some of that money to propagate solar EV charging carports in Maui?
 
“Hawaii has a large and diverse visitor population with a big percentage of early adopters and trend setters,” said David Fisher of Maui Venture Consulting. “That’s what makes it a great market research test bed.”
 
Hawaii also has the active presence of Better Place, a global company that is trying to wire the world for EVs (starting in Israel). Brian Goldstein, director of Better Place Hawaii, tells me that no state is more blessed with renewable energy resources or more ideally suited to wide EV adoption. “Solar, wind, wave and geothermal resources abound, and the distances routinely driven are easily within the range of modern electric vehicles,” he said.
 
An early Nissan EV on the ground for Better Place in Hawaii. (Kanu Hawaii/Flickr photo)Shaun Stenshol, president of Bio-Beetle, also cites short driving distances, and Hawaii’s perfect climate, as encouraging large-scale adoption. Bio-Beetle, which started out with biodiesel Bugs, now also offers Volts and Leafs.
 
Maui's Bio Beetle started with biodiesel VWs fueled by made-in-Hawaii vegetable oil. Now it's expanding to electrics. (Jim Motavalli photo)“Hawaii is to the electric car what Napa is to the grape—perfect conditions,” says Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association. He points to the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which calls for the state to generate 70 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2030.
 
Until recently, Hawaii had the nation’s biggest state incentives for electric cars—an up-to $4,500 cash payment. Unfortunately, with only $2 million in funding that money ran out in May, Ku tells me. It might have made sense to make the awards smaller, but the program definitely stimulated early adoption. In 2011, the state awarded $2.6 million to some strategic partners, including Better Place ($581,000), AeroVironment ($820,000) and the city of Honolulu $400,000 for charging stations).  
 
But one of the best things the state did was require that any public, private or government parking lot of 100 spaces or more designate one space exclusively for EVs. The owner has to install EV charging, and there are penalties for non-electrics that park in those spaces. This is unique in the nation as far as I know. That is one of many public policies that are helping spread the word for Better Place. Here's the company's video progress report in Hawaii:

 
I could go on, and maybe I will for a little bit. Carol Reimann, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, says EVs on the island is “an exciting development, which we hope will mark the beginning of a significant transition to alternative fuels.” It will, if hotels do their part, continue building charging stations, and encourage their guests to rent EVs. So far, I hear, Bio Beetle’s electric cars haven’t seen much use. But that’s Maui, where EVs will take a bit longer.
 
Chris Sbarbaro, vice president of Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Hawaii, says that there has been “good demand” for EV rentals on Oahu. Customers include state employees who visit the capital from neighboring islands. Enterprise was the first car rental company to add EVs in 2011, and it’s now expanding its presence with Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts.
 
So EVs aren’t taking over Paradise Boulevard just yet, but they’ve got one green wheel on the Hawaiian highway of tomorrow.

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