By Jim Motavalli
4:15 PM EDT, September 18, 2013
BIG ISLAND, HAWAII — On the grounds of the Natural Energy Lab on Hawaii's Big Island, I saw a Nissan Leaf, one of about 100 electric cars operating here. Doug Teeple founded the Big Island EV Association, which now has 70 members, and he points both to great natural advantages — great weather, ease of charging with renewable energy — and big challenges, which include high grid electricity costs, long distances between major towns (the Big Island is the size of Connecticut), and local car dealers who don't bother selling electric cars.
Dan Davids of Plug In America counts 1,783 electric cars in Hawaii. Five years ago there were just 500, and most of those were glorified golf carts.
Hawaii is in the Top Ten for Leaf sales, and you do see them here, along with a many Chevy Volts, a few Tesla Model S cars, Ford Fusion Energi and Toyota Prius plug-in hybrids, Mitsubishi I-MiEVs and others. Honolulu has 200 charging stations, courtesy of a federal grant, and wants more Level III fast chargers.
A new report, "Electric Vehicle Paradise: How Hawaii Can Lead the World in EV Deployment," from the Berkeley Law School and the University of Hawaii's Maui College, was released at the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit I attended in Honolulu.
The report identifies four barriers: insufficient charging, limited dealer supply and public outreach, high upfront costs for vehicles and charging, and a lack of diversity in available models. For most automakers, besides Nissan, Hawaii is not an initial target market.
And subsidies are an issue, too. Until recently, Hawaii led the nation with a $5,000 rebate for EV buyers, but that money ran out. A new subsidy would be helpful. The report sees a range of solutions that would jump-start the market. These include improving utility rates so charging costs would go down, having more fleets buy electric, and encouraging more solar installation so that EV owners can get off the grid for their charging.
Hawaii imports 86 percent of the energy it uses, and the state set an ambitious goal of cutting petroleum consumption for transportation by 70 percent by 2030. Electric cars can be a big help for that, and also the Honolulu Rail Transit project, which is supposed to take 40,000 cars out of the daily commuting slog.
According to Ethan Elkind of UC Berkeley, co-author of the report, "We see Hawaii as a major market for EVs, and it can really help educate Americans in general about electric cars. The islands get eight million visitors a year, so people should be able to come here, rent an EV, and demystify the process." And when they go back home, they're converts for electric transportation.
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