Plug In
The Charge To Make Electric Vehicles A Reality In Hawai'i

People in Hawai'i have a love-hate relationship with their vehicles. We love the convenience of hopping in a car, stepping on the gas and cruising to the beach, park or just down to the store for groceries. In fact, it's something we completely take for granted†second nature. But our nagging conscience tells us that we're driving on borrowed time, spewing toxic emissions while we go about our merry motoring. As petroleum prices continue to climb, we exhale with a frustrated sigh as we swipe our credit card and dispense another few gallons of gasoline from the pump.

The Green Energy Outlet in Kaka'ako boasts the first solar powered electric vehicle charge station on O'ahu. Photo: Kevin Whitton

There are well over a million registered vehicles on Hawai'i's roads, almost one for each of the 1.3 million residents. Of those, only 178 are electric vehicles, though it appears certain that number will be on the rise. Government, industry and several visionary isle residents are collaborating as never before to help shift our transportation future to include sustainable options.

"It's a very, very exciting and vibrant time," said an enthusiastic Ted Peck, an administrator with the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), the lead state agency in the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI). "We are in discussion with multiple manufacturers to make Hawai'i a priority market [for electric vehicles]."

According to Peck, it's no trivial undertaking. "This is not going to happen overnight, but it's certainly no flash in the pan," he said. "We are in the process of transforming."

Will electric vehicles be readily available to the public to meet Hawai'i's clean energy goals, and will the price be something the public can afford?. Photo: Courtesy Maui County

The HCEI mandates that we shift from the nation's highest percentage of fossil fuel use (90 percent of Hawai'i's electricity is generated from fossil fuels) to 70 percent clean energy by 2030. "This can only be achieved by an early start," states a DBEDT report on electric vehicles (EVs). And bringing electric vehicles to Hawai'i is a central component to that strategy.

Act 156, passed by the 2009 state legislature and signed into law by Governor Linda Lingle, set forth initial steps to integrate electric vehicles into the state's transportation policy goals. The bill requires parking spaces for EVs in public and private facilities of 100 spaces or more, sets guidelines for state and county fleets to move towards non-petroleum vehicles and includes requirements for developing an infrastructure for charging electric vehicles. In addition, as much as $20 million in federal funds may be appropriated into state energy transformation grants to aid implementation of these goals.

As Hawai'i looks forward to the future of transportation, it is also useful to look to the past†an axiom that continues to resurface in the Aloha State. Sugar planter H.P. Baldwin is credited with driving the first car in Honolulu, a steam-powered vehicle back in 1899 that topped out at 14 miles per hour. The following year, 21 electric cars boasting a range of 25 miles were shipped to O'ahu, manufactured by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago, Illinois. It wasn't long before Standard Oil Company led a buyout of Woods and gasoline-powered automobiles soon became the norm.

Fast-forward to 1993 and the inception of the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies (HCATT), a program of the state's High Technology Development Corporation. HCATT focused on both zero-emission and low emission vehicles to support both military and commercial applications that, according to a DBEDT report, "contribute to improving economic competitiveness and... [decreasing] our nation's dependence on imported petroleum."

"The Hawai'i EV demonstration project was one of seven funded around the country," said HCATT manager Tom Quinn. "We've progressed from early lead-acid batteries to hydrogen cell storage with charging at Hickam Air Force Base, to lithium-ion batteries, which are the latest and greatest. The common component has been the electric drive system†rather than the internal combustion engine."

Quinn emphasized that the switch to EVs is market driven. "It will take five-dollar-a-gallon gas to make a difference," he predicts.

But the relative non-existence of electric vehicles in Hawai'i, thus far, is not one of choice, it's because big name car manufacturers have not produced a purely electric vehicle for quite some time†since California's 1990 mandate for automobile makers to offer zero-emission electric vehicles to cut carbon dioxide emissions in the state. The short-lived rise and sequential fall of electric vehicles on California's roadways is chronicled in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?.

The handwriting may finally be on the dashboard. And, for numerous reasons, Hawai'i may provide a very attractive test and commercial market. In December 2008, Better Place, a global provider of EV networks and services, and Phoenix Motorcars, an EV manufacturer, signed a memorandum of understanding with Hawai'i's electric utilities. Not an exclusive agreement, it marked a significant step forward as other carmakers and EV equipment manufacturers have actively been courted as well.

Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealer's Association, said they have petitioned Nissan to include Hawai'i as a test market for the Leaf, a purely electric vehicle. Rolf hopes the Leaf, Chevy Volt hybrid, Ford Transit Connect, Honda, and others will soon have new models on Hawai'i showroom floors. "We sent a pound of Kona coffee with every request letter [to U.S. car manufacturers]," he said. "Every one of them responded."

"Hawai'i is a natural laboratory for developing and testing plug-in electric vehicles," said Dick Rosenblum, Hawaiian Electric Company president and CEO, in HECO's winter edition of Powerlines. "With short driving distances and our goal to have abundant renewable energy source to use for off-peak charging, we can be the place people come to see and experience EVs in action."

Hawaiian Electric companies on O'ahu, Maui and the Big Island are actively testing electric vehicles in their fleet and charging stations. Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares has been driving one of six modified Toyota Prius plug-in hybrids in Hawai'i as part of a government-testing program and a wind turbine installed at MECO's Kahului facility last year supplies power to two charging stations in their parking lot.

Up until now, a handful of hobbyists and hardcore EV advocates have been the lone voice of public interest in electric vehicles, and having a garage has been a necessity for plugging in. The electric vehicles getting ready to hit the market will have driving ranges around 100 miles on a full charge, ample range for 80 percent of Hawai'i residents who commute a total of 40 miles per day on average. While a nightly charge would suffice for most homeowners, the ability to charge up during the day would be a necessity for people in apartments and condominiums.

This has spurred discussions of a charging station network accessible in public parking areas. Distributors of charging station systems are courting businesses to take advantage of solar and wind power to generate their own electricity and, in turn, offer charging station for electric vehicles on a for-profit model.

Maui resident Michael Leone of Hawaii Electric Vehicles was one of the attendees at the January ribbon cutting for the first solar-powered charge station on O'ahu at the Green Energy Outlet in Kaka'ako. He has a big stake in the adoption of EVs in Hawai'i, as his company is the exclusive Hawai'i distributor for ChargePoint, the brand of charging station installed at the O'ahu south shore retailer. The Maui entrepreneur is enthusiastic about the future. "It's time that energy self-sufficiency for Hawai'i stops being a dream," said Leone, "and starts to become a reality."

The ChargePoint station unveiling, using infrastructure provided by Coulomb Technologies, leads the way for a network of such facilities, which may be used on a monthly subscription or for a single charging session. While Coulomb has been busier in Europe than the U.S., ChargePoint stations have been installed at over fifty Mainland locations, as well as the MECO site. In time, trips may be programmed on an EV user's iPhone to identify proximity of charge stations, with the charge station able to recognize EV drivers and communicate with them by e-mail and text message.

Henk Rogers of Blue Planet Foundation drove his Tesla Roadster, one of four in Hawai'i, to the charge station opening. He said his purchase of an EV was congruent with Blue Planet's mission of ending the use of carbon-based fuels in Hawai'i. He noted that EVs are also quiet, so there's less noise pollution.

When asked why he chose a Tesla, Rogers replied, "I like sexy cars. It can do zero-to-sixty in 3.9 seconds. It's a personal statement to young people who look at it and say, 'I want one of these.'" He mentioned that the placard on the door of his car†Blue Planet Foundation Electric Vehicle†is a conversation starter wherever he goes.

But Rogers hit a speed bump when his condo association wouldn't budge from a rule that prevented him from placing a charging station in his designated parking stall. The issue has yet to be fully resolved, and he says he may initiate a bill to the legislature so other condo owners needn't face the same restrictions in years to come.

"People should not look at the hiccups and say, 'See, it's not going to happen,'" said DBEDT's Peck. "Getting cars made†that's the challenge. We need to be patient and watchful. We are transforming."