By Anthony Pignataro
The future for electric vehicles (EVs), cars that emit no pollution whatsoever, on Maui is bright, but you’d never know it by seeing the charging station at AAAAA Rent-A-Space in Honokowai. In late March, the company opened a Level 2 charging station there (it takes six hours to power up an EV) to great fanfare.
With energy coming from a massive 600-kilowatt photovoltaic assembly on the roof, the whole setup should be a model for future electric car charging centers. “Responsible stewardship of the land is one of our core values, and we’re proud to contribute to our islands’ efforts to wean itself from imported oil,” AAAAA owner Jim Knuppe said in this Apr. 5 Lahaina News story.
After hiring local public relations firm Gilbert & Associates, the station opened to great media attention, which was helped by a visit from Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa. But since then, business has been non-existent.
“We’ve had no business,” said AAAAA Manager Liz May.
For Anne Ku, director of the Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance (MauiEVA), a kind of users group for the owners of the 50 or so EVs on the island, it’s no surprise that none of the owners of the island’s 50 or so EVs have charged at AAAAA. “They charge too much,” she said, referring to AAAAA’s $10/hour charging fee. At that rate, EV owners would spend $60 charging their cars, which is more than gas-powered auto owners currently pay, even with gas prices hovering near $5/gallon.
Instead, Better Place, a private company that builds EV stations around the world, runs seven other charging stations around the island that don’t charge EV owners anything to use them (though two are located in hotels–the Four Seasons and Marriott, both in Wailea–and are only for use by hotel guests). Amazingly, less than two miles from AAAAA’s charging station sits a free charging station in the Kahana Gateway Center that can accommodate four cars.
As Ku knows only too well, building an infrastructure on Maui to handle electric cars is difficult and time-consuming. Though there are just a handful of charging stations around the island, Ku said there are currently 37 active permits to run stations. It’s also expensive, though MauiEVA, which is run out of the University of Hawaii, is benefitting from a $299,693 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“The project will publish a plan to develop and implement a permitting process, incentives, policies, and a renewable energy grid system analysis for the expeditious and sustainable deployment of EVs and charging infrastructure,” states the grant. “The plan will help provide a model that can be adapted for broader application across the State of Hawaii.”
The ultimate plan to introduce the electric car to Maui is, according to Ku, a novel one: let rental car companies bring in fleets of EVs and have visitors drive them around. But that hasn’t happened yet, mostly because there aren’t yet enough charging stations to justify fleet purchases of EVs. To date, Ku said there’s just one plug-in car available for rent on the island: a Nissan Leaf owned by BioBeetle.
Individuals wishing to purchase EVs for themselves also have to shell out considerable money ($37,000 or so) though there are federal and state rebates that kick some of that money back to the buyer.
As for her organization, Ku said they’re still identifying “roadblocks” to getting Maui EV-ready.
“One key barrier is education: there are different kinds of charging stations,” she said. “Another is that there are only two types of plug-in cars available on Maui right now–the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. Affordability is also a problem. There are tax rebates provided by the state for new EVs bought in Hawaii, but it’s first-come, first-served. The hard thing is that the technology is changing, the rebates are changing, the incentives are changing…”
Currently, Maui only has Level II chargers, which take about up to six hours to power up an EV. But there are fast chargers opening on the Mainland that take only about 30 minutes. Of course, the Mainland electrical grid is interconnected, whereas Maui is an island with an isolated grid. And being an island means salt air, which can be detrimental to charging stations.
“Everything is so new,” said Ku. “It was only last year when plug-in types started coming in. Early adapters have been willing to take risks, but without good infrastructure, you can’t make an EV your primary car.”
It’s a serious list of problems, but one thing gives Ku hope. “Demand is not a barrier,” she said.
About Anthony Pignataro
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He started work as MauiTime's Editor in 2003, took a couple years off starting in 2008, then returned to the staff in 2011. He's the author of "Stealing Cars With The Pros," a 2013 collection of his journalism and the Maui novels "Small Island" (2011) and "The Dead Season" (2012)–all of which were published by Event Horizon Press. In 2014, his one-act play "War Stories" won second place in the Maui Fringe Festival.