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Paving the way for electric cars on the Big Island

June 6, 2014 - 8:38am

There have been at least two recent victories in what electric car advocates say has been a long uphill battle to make the vehicles viable on Hawaii Island.

A new fast-charge station for EVs will be unveiled in South Kohala in July, and Kona Nissan is finally selling the Leaf electric car, with vehicles being snapped up like hot cakes.

“We sold a bunch and just got a bunch in,” said Justin Ako, service adviser at Kona Nissan. “The sales department tells me a lot of people have been asking about them, and that’s a good thing.”

The company has sent technicians to the mainland and is ready with chargers and tools to service vehicles, Ako said. The Leaf became available at the dealership in early May.

People who have asked for electric cars at dealerships and charging stations to serve them say the developments are overdue.

“We’ve been pushing so hard on these guys,” said Douglas Teeple, founder of the Big Island EV Association and owner of a Leaf.

Traveling the Big Island via electric vehicle still just a dream

Traveling Big Island via EV still just a dream

At the Shops at Mauna Lani, the smart grid technology company Charge Bliss recently installed a direct current fast charger with plug-ins that serve both foreign and domestic cars. Energy-conscious lawmakers are planning to attend the public unveiling of the charging station July 6.

Michael Oh, general manager at the Shops at Mauna Lani, said there has been a lot of interest — including his own — in electric cars, but people have held back, waiting to make sure the EVs will be supported.

“Without the infrastructure to support it, we’re all reluctant to purchase right away,” Oh said.

The conventional charge stations seen around Kailua-Kona, Waikoloa and Hilo only allow a vehicle to travel 15 miles with one hour of charging. A fast-charge station allows an electric car to go 60 miles after an hour at the plug-in.

The Big Island’s distances, heat and steep terrain present challenges to electric car operation. EV mileage rates are based on vehicles traveling on flat surfaces with no air conditioning, limited occupants and the windows rolled up. When an electric car starts climbing mauka loaded with ohana and air conditioning on, efficiency takes a steep downward turn, said Charge Bliss CEO David Bliss, who is planning on building more places for the island’s electric cars to juice up.

“You can take a car with a 75 mile range and will easily get cut down to 50 miles,” Bliss said.

Traveling Big Island via EV still just a dreaA big part of the solution, Bliss believes, is to install more fast-charging stations at strategic points.“You just can’t wait four hours for your vehicle to charge,” Bliss said. “It’s not realistic. Our plan is for eight to nine charging stations around the belt road, but also on Saddle Road. We’re looking for places to partner with, like the Shops at Mauna Lani.”

Puna Senator Russell Ruderman said there is a state law that every business must have one spot for an EV to charge out of every 100 parking spaces — but the legislation hasn’t been enforced.

“It may be time to put some teeth in the law,” he said.

Teeple, whose membership has burgeoned to 120 members in the past couple of years, said that electric cars were almost nonexistent five years ago.

“It was a bunch of hobbyists doing their own conversions,” said Teeple, a Waimea resident. “It really took off when the Leaf came out in 2011.”

Up until now, those Leafs were shipped in from Oahu or the mainland. Ruderman, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment, said he was disappointed to go shopping for an EV nine months ago, but couldn’t find what he was looking for at Big Island dealerships.

A friend who owns a Nissan Leaf has to ship the car to Oahu for service, he said. The Big Island lags behind the rest of the state in paving the way for electric cars, and there isn’t a good reason for it, he said.

“Transportation fuel is the next real challenge we have to tackle,” he said. “Almost everyone can get to where they need to go on a single charge. We are the perfect place to make this work and show the way.”

“The smartest people I know have PV panels and an electric car they charge overnight, and they pay a $20 power bill,” Ruderman added.

Teeple has 18 solar panels on his roof. He’s able to plug in his Leaf at night, meet all of his electricity needs and still produce more power than he needs.