Electric Cars on Hawaii's Big Island: A Few Challenges

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 12, 2013

THE BIG ISLAND,  HAWAII—Doug Teeple, the founder of the Big Island EV Association, knows he’s got some hard work ahead. In some ways, this Connecticut-sized paradise is perfect for electric cars, with a balmy climate and lots of sunshine that makes for no-brainer solar installations.

Doug Teeple, founder of the Big Island EV Association. His other electric is a 1972 Karmann Ghia hardtop conversion. (Jim Motavalli photo) Can you charge both your home and car from rooftop photovoltaics? Teeple does, and so do many of the 100 or so battery electric owners here. There are 60 registered Nissan Leafs, a handful of Tesla Model S cars, some Ford Fusion Energis, and more. But consider this: There are only a dozen public charging stations, many of them at the resort hotels. The Big Island is bigger than all the other islands combined, and there’s no easy way to drive electric the 90 miles between the major settlements of Hilo and Kona.
What’s more the local Nissan dealer declines to either sell or service the Leaf electric, so owners have to import both their cars and their service guys from Maui. Jim Falk Nissan on Maui has sold more than 60 Leafs to residents of the Big Island. Geez. “The way we see it, that dealer walked away from $1 million in revenue,” Teeple says.
“All 60 plus of us are trusting that the Nissan Leaf will not fail and therefore not need service,” says Hilo-based owner Benno Wang, who also connects to a solar array with 34 panels (and is completely off the grid). Actually, it’s not as bad as all that, because a) electric cars rarely need service; and b) a service technician from Jim Falk comes over and makes house calls every six months.
Oahu, home to the capital city of Honolulu, got the bulk of the federal money to support EV charging, and put in 200 public units. The Big Island’s allotment: 12, and none of them are 480-volt Level III fast chargers. Rodney Dangerfield would have something to say about “no respect.”
“We have a charger for every 300 square miles, compared to Oahu with one every three square miles,” says Teeple, a former Silicon Valley programmer (he now programs some of the island's big telescopes) who also owns a VW Karmann Ghia EV conversion. “We have the greatest need, but the least infrastructure.”

 Most of Hawaii's EV chargers are on populous Oahu. (Jim Motavalli photo)Another woe is the high electricity cost, a whopping 42 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s a major reason to get the big island of Hawaii off fossil fuels, and it’s happening here with all kinds of innovative renewable projects, including one from Makai Ocean Engineering to generate electricity using very cold sea water.
Teeple thinks that just nine or 10 strategically located charging stations, preferably Level III units, would give Big Island residents total mobility. The EV Association (which now has 70 members) is planning to raise awareness with a series of public events in Hilo and Kona. They’re even inviting that recalcitrant Nissan dealer. Here's more from Doug Teeple on video:

But beyond the issues, there's great fun to be had owning an EV on the Big Island. Listen to this rapturous description:

There is nothing quite like it: barreling down the hill to Kawaihae packing 30 kilowatts, charge up, and then a flat-out high-speed rocket back up the hill, A/C full on, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," a steady push, just smooth acceleration, frantic exhilaration. Nothing can quite match the feel of an electric.

Learn more about the state of electric cars in Hawaii from this new report.

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