Starting this month, state and county agencies buying new vehicles are required to give priority to electric vehicles, alternative-fuel vehicles and hybrids. And by the end of next year, government and private parking lots open to the public must have at least one space for electric vehicles and a vehicle charger for every 100 parking spaces.
To offset the costs of electric cars and special parking, the state plans to spend $4.25 million in federal stimulus money by an April 2012 deadline on chargers and grants.
Vehicles that run on electricity rather than gasoline emit less pollution and are expected to be cheaper per mile to operate. They're under development by every major car maker, and certain models are scheduled to be available in limited quantities on the Mainland by year's end.
However, it's unclear when the vehicles will be available to Hawai'i residents, and how quickly they will adopt the cars, which need to be regulary charged with electricity. There are also questions about the durability, reliability and serviceability of this new breed of vehicles.
The state's push to spur the adoption of electric cars could be premature, said Lowell Kalapa, president of the nonprofit Tax Foundation of Hawaii.
"It's well-intended, but not completely thought out on the economic side," he said. "Not only does it cost us taxpayers additional money to purchase those types of vehicles, but then we're going to have to build in these facilities for the electric vehicles.
"I think a lot more research needs to be done before we buy into a lot of these things, and the electric cars is one of them."
According to the state, there's expected to be 1,000 to 3,000 electric vehicles in Hawaii in 2014.
So far, the private-sector interest in electric vehicles and chargers remains relatively small. In January, there were 179 registered electric vehicles statewide, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Those are mainly test vehicles, expensive high-end models, mini-cars and scooters.
Last month, green building and energy product retailer Green Energy Outlet installed the state's first public electric vehicle charger at its Kaka'ako store. GEO President Frank Rogers is banking on a rapid adoption of electric vehicles as they become commercially available .
"We're ahead of the curve, there's no doubt, but somebody has to jump in the pool first," Rogers said. "I really do think that you get that right car and you're going to have a hard time filling demand for it — it's going to be really flying off the shelf. "
Among the most anticipated electric vehicles coming to market are the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. The $25,000 to $33,000 Leaf is expected to launch in December. The Volt is scheduled to launch in November, though no price has been announced yet.
Neither vehicle is expected to be widely available for a while. That's because General Motors expects to only produce about 10,000 Volts the first year, or about 200 vehicles per state.
The Leaf initially will be deployed in Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington state, where 11,210 charging stations are being installed under a $99.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Hawaii hopes to join those states that will get these vehicles first, said Maria Tome, renewable energy coordinator at DBEDT. Hawaii's small geography and warm weather make it an ideal environment for battery-driven electric vehicles.
In turn, these vehicles could reduce petroleum consumption, Tome said. The charging could take place during off-peak night hours to prevent strain on the electric grid, she added.
"The problem is there was a delay in what the automakers were doing on the cars and on the chargers," she said. "Everybody was promising 2010, and now they've all flipped that to 2011, although some are still saying late 2010."
Those launch delays could jeopardize a state plan to use $4.25 in federal stimulus money to drive adoption by, among other things, providing about 625 grants of $5,000 each to those buying electric vehicles. Half a million dollars would go to state agencies to help meet electric and alternative-fuel vehicle purchasing mandates.
Under the stimulus program, that grant money must be obligated by the end of September and spent by April 30, 2012. DBEDT plans to distribute the grants via a contractor agreement signed before October of this year.
"That does make it really complicated with the deadlines that are in," Tome said. "So we're discussing if we need to modify that."
Separately, Gov. Linda Lingle has proposed the state provide a general excise tax rebate to those buying or leasing an electric vehicle or install ing an electric vehicle charging system.
Even without the proposed state grants and tax rebates, electric vehicle purchases may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500.
The state wants to ensure that people who buy electric vehicles have parking spaces and charging outlets by mandating that parking lots with 100 or more spaces dedicate 1 percent of those spaces for electric vehicles. At least one charger must be installed in each eligible lot. Under the law passed last year, that figure jumps to 2 percent of spaces once the number of registered electric vehicles statewide tops 5,000.
It's unknown how many electric vehicle spaces the law will create. However, the figure could be in the thousands. For example, Ala Moana Center — which has the biggest parking lot in the Islands, has about 9,800 parking spaces. That means the shopping center will need to set aside 98 parking spaces for electric vehicles by the end of next year. Electric vehicle chargers can cost $2,000 or more, depending on features.
Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association, said the group supports efforts to reduce petroleum dependency. However, the electric vehicle parking mandate that takes effect at the end of next year is "too soon (and) too optimistic, based on what we know of production runs and what we know of the ability to adopt the product," he said.
Adoption of electric vehicles will depend on vehicle availability, prices and the difference in the price of electricity and gasoline , Rolf said.
"There are a whole lot of issues relating to electric vehicles that are just beginning to be addressed," he said. "Those (parking) stalls are going to be empty for several years."
Revisiting the Electric Car
By Tom Whipple on 3 February 2010 in The Falls Church News-Press - (http://www.fcnp.com/commentary/national/5746-the-peak-oil-crisis-revisiting-the-electric-car.html)
Last week the US Secretary of Energy loaned Nissan motors $1.4 billion to convert an existing Nissan plant in Tennessee to build electric cars. According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, no less than 25 models of electric cars are being readied for sale in the next few years - most by major manufacturers.
Although the current crop of hybrids certainly runs some of the time on electric motors, the future of electric vehicles are those that plug into the grid and get all, or at least much, of their energy from this source. There is no question that electric vehicles are intrinsically superior to the current combustion engines that have dominated personal transport for the last century. They don't use any, or not as much, petroleum-based fuels. They use energy much more efficiently. They have no emissions. Their performance is as good or better than the internal combustion car, and they are much simpler to maintain. Most places in the developed world already have robust or at least an adequate electrical distribution system for the beginning of the electric age. The last 100 feet to the car, however, will be an expensive-to-overcome problem for many.
The overwhelming advantage of the electric car is that when the time arrives that gasoline and other fossil fuels become too expensive or scarce for widespread use, the electricity probably will be there. Currently the cost of electricity per vehicle mile is very cheap in comparison with gasoline and diesel. Should the costs of electricity rise dramatically or shortages develop, many people will have the option of conserving substantial amounts of electricity at home in order to use it in an electric vehicle.
There are, of course, numerous downsides to the widespread adoption of the electric car and in recent weeks the press and web have been full of stories casting doubt as to their future. The most profound criticism is that the whole idea of continuing with personal vehicles in an age of declining resources - oil, coal, minerals, and personal wealth - is simply nuts. It will never happen. We are better off concentrating on public transport. Given that the world is currently running on the order of 1 billion cars and light trucks, the chances of scraping up the resources (such as lithium and car loans) to replace even a tiny fraction of such a growing fleet is unlikely.
Much of the electricity that would be used to power electric cars comes from coal and natural gas that will not be around forever. Every now and then some environmentally minded soul takes a shot at proving electric cars would make more pollution than gasoline powered ones as dirtier coals are used to generate the electricity.
Then there are a range of criticisms based on the current technical conditions pertaining to electric cars, -- relatively small batteries means that real-world ranges will be shorter than we are used to; most people have no convenient place to plug them in; the batteries are expensive and there will not be enough lithium to build the hundred's of millions we will need. In fact outside of North America, electric power shortages are already a problem which is likely to become worse.
Many of the smaller technical issues however, such as range, where to recharge, and battery material have work-arounds or are likely to be overcome by the many technical advances in battery technology that are underway.
A lot of the answer as to whether we need electric vehicles lies in one's perception of what will happen to the global economy in the remaining decades of the 21st Century. If one thinks the current economic difficulties will soon disappear and a new age of wealth and abundance is about to begin - then you probably won't want to buy an electric car. However, if you believe the age of petro-abundance is just about over and that oil and many other natural resources are going to be in very short supply within the next few decades, then you should start thinking about what would be useful in the transition from the 20th century to whatever life will be like in the 22nd.
In the last 100 years the U.S. and many other parts of the world have built "motorized" societies in which life would be nearly impossible without cars and trucks. People and the entire economy moves on the internal combustion engine. While returning to horses, mules, and oxen to move people and material is always possible - think of the sanitation problem and all the barns we would have to build.
If one thinks of the vast amount of infrastructure the developed world has to maintain - buildings, roads, water, sewage, trash disposal, public safety, power and communications lines - one soon gets the idea that even a relatively short range electric vehicle is going to be an awful lot better than an oxcart in preserving and rebuilding the facilities we currently rely on for food and shelter during the next 100 years or so.
There are of course ways to stretch out existing supplies of oil, perhaps for as long as a century or more, by rationing their use to only the most essential tasks needed by our civilization - farming, food transport, public safety, and utilities maintenance. This probably leaves the rest of us in the bus queue unless we find some other fuel for personal vehicles. For the immediate future, natural gas may be a substitute, but over the longer run only electricity, or possibly ammonia, made from renewable, non-polluting sources will be sustainable into future centuries.
So there is the argument. The quicker we build the necessary recharging infrastructure and start getting ourselves into electric vehicles, the better the prospects for our future.
See also: Ea O Ka Aina: Electric Boost for Bicycles 2/2/10