Getting off the gas in Hawaii - part 1: Three hundred electric vehicles

Inside the E Vehicles garage. Click to enter high-resolution photo gallery.

Hawaii has lots of sun for solar power generation, not a lot of long roads (except for on the aptly named Big Island, also known as the Island of Hawaii), and an environmentally conscious population. These are just a few of the reasons that I argued last fall that Hawaii is an ideal state for electric vehicle companies to set up shop. I'm not retreating from those positions, but I realize that it's not as easy as having the "perfect storm" of components lined up to make EVs take over a state. I learned this by talking to a few people in the alternative energy car world in Hawaii, and today and tomorrow I'll be sharing their thoughts with you.

First, on the EV front, I visited two electric vehicle shops in Honolulu in November to get the straight dope on EVs in Paradise (are we still calling Hawaii paradise? Is that still cliché enough to be cool?) I sat down with Brad Ulep, who has been bringing NEVs to Hawaii since November 1999 with his company E Vehicles of Hawaii. Today, E Vehicles of Hawaii sells the Dynasty (it's the one in the picture above, and looks a little like the VW bug) and models made by Columbia in Wisconsin throughout the islands. Business isn't brisk, but it's not dead either. E Vehicles of Hawaii sold about 80 EVs in 2006 to both private and public institutions. Julep said some companies that really should buy EVs – like HECO, the Hawaiian Electric Company – hasn't bought one.
"All Hawaiian Electric wants from us is to borrow a car every Christmas for the parade," he said. "This year I didn't even let them."

Follow the jump for the entire interview, and click on the image above or the thumbnails below to see a high-resolution (1,280 pixel wide) image gallery of 23 pictures from Enova and E Vehicles of Hawaii. The motorcycles in the pictures are by Johnny Pag, and E Vehicles of Hawaii sells them because, as Ulep said, selling electric caes is a struggle. The 250 Spyder has been a huge success for Doc White Cycles (the motorcycle half of E Vehicles of Hawaii). About half of the images in the gallery are from Enova Systems, another EV proponent in Hawaii. I'll have my interview with Todd Martin, manager of Enova's Hawaii office, up later today here. Then, tomorrow (up now), we'll take an in-depth look at biodiesel in the middle of the Pacific and give you all the details on the Bio-Beetle.

On to the interview...

ABG: I've been in Hawaii for a little while and decided that it would be a good idea to find out what the scene is here, because really it is an ideal area, it seems, for cars. The range issue is not that great because you can't go that far. There is lots of sun for possible solar generation of energy. There are a lot of people here who care about the environment. So it seems like there is a lot of factors that would play into electric cars being very successful here and I wanted to hear from someone who has been doing it for a while, you know, just what you have been doing basically.

Julep: We started bringing in these neighborhoods electric vehicle in 1999 actually. And that is the year the state made an announcement that they are going to put 22 electric charging stations on the island, which still has not materialized. I think there are two of them.

ABG: There is one right up the street here, right?

Julep: Yeah, Hawaiian Electric. Anyway, we saw this as, a great idea because it fits perfect here in Hawaii and it is just ideal. If you work or do most of your traveling within a five-mile radius, which a lot of people do, then it is ideal. It is perfect. You know? When you consider that it costs probably less than $.70 to fully charge your batteries to pull say anywhere between 30 and 40 miles on one charge I think that is a great idea. You know? You would be saving a lot of money. Typically, this would be ideal for many situations, like a security guard company, you know? Or stevedore dock workers, you know, or government inspectors who have to drive around the base all day. Even the stay home mom and dad who does all the shopping and taking the kids to soccer and karate and hula and football, you know? And just basically anyone who stays home or in the neighborhood area all day. This is the ideal vehicle, you know?

ABG: And that's for the reasons I mentioned?

Julep: Number one, the vehicle is legal here in Hawaii and - I believe in all the states that have approved these neighborhoods electric vehicles - they are approved to be driven anywhere the posted speed limit is 35 miles an hour. The vehicle can only go 25 miles an hour but you are allowed in 35-mile-an-hour zones. And my understanding is that you can only go no more than 10 miles below the speed limit otherwise you are impeding traffic.

ABG: That's right.

Julep: Okay. So they have allowed us to drive anywhere it is 35. On Oahu, especially, if you disregard the freeway, I believe over 80 percent of the streets on Oahu are 35 miles or less. Typically, all around downtown Honolulu is 35 miles an hour. Let's see, what else? Registration used to be free and, um, meter parking is still free for city, county and state. Municipal parking lots, meters, and garages run by the state and the city and county.

ABG: Did the registration shift?

Julep: Back in 1997, I believe, the governor signed it into law for a five-year period so it stopped in 2002. And they kept the free parking meters for NEVs. We tried to lobby for state tax credit on top of the free registration and free meter parking to encourage people to buy electric cars. Unfortunately, the idiots at the tax office thought we were going to break the bank, you know. They said, "Do you know how much money we are going to lose?" I said, "Sir, right now on record we have about 35 electric cars registered. I don't see how it is going to affect the state treasury."

ABG: Right.

Julep: You know? Anyway, and then everyone from the president on down to our mayor from as far back as six years ago for the purposes of running for office, kept pushing and encouraging, yeah, let's go electric cars, let's go electric cars. Everybody was talking the talk. But, today, per capita, our highest penetration is on the Island of Lanai. Lanai has 3,000 people, 27 miles of hardtop and probably 30 electric cars. Also, government entities are using it. U.S. Army housing in Schofield and all the Army housing in Fort Shafter and the company that handles the military housing they are taking delivery presently of 27 electric cars to be used on base. Hickam Air Force base is a strong advocate for alternative fuel vehicles like our electric cars. They have purchased a whole bunch. The Navy is heading in that direction. From he Army, we haven't really gotten too much in terms of our sales penetration. UH [The University of Hawaii] has five of our Dynastys and they probably have a total of 20 various electric cars from us.

ABG: About how many electric vehicles would you say are either on all the islands or on Oahu? About 500?

Julep: Well, I doubt there is 300 – well, maybe with Hawaii Gem on the Windward side, there is probably, I would guess in the neighborhood of 300 electric cars on the island.

ABG: And they are the ones who do the renting to tourists, right? Is that kind of what Gem does?

Julep: We used to. I got it going. It is just that renting to tourists here in Waikiki, well, number one, the vendors didn't know what they were doing. They didn't know how to rent it. And then No. 2, the real estate was too high. You can park four mopeds where one electric car sits, you know? So it just wasn't feasible because you could probably rent it out for only one day. And for a few hours and then you have to charge it for eight hours. That is a draw back for the neighborhood electric cars, you know? The range is about 30 miles. For rental purposes, it is good if you keep the tourists only in Waikiki, you know?

ABG: Yeah.

Julep: Um, but I believe in it and it is moving forward. I knew from as far back as six years ago that it is going to be a long ordeal climbing up that ladder to get where we really want to be with the electric cars. We are still in a way struggling but we believe in it so we are going to continue it. It is really ironic, you know, as we talk about this how had the electric starter not been invented had we just stuck to batteries all the way through –

ABG: Since the early 1900s, you mean?

Julep: Can you imagine how advanced we would be right now in battery technology?

ABG: Yeah.

Julep: And I dare anybody to say why don't we build a gasoline car. You know, I dare anybody say that then.

ABG: You have two of the Sunterra's here?

Julep: Yeah.

ABG: Well, what can you tell me about those cars? This was developed here on the Big Island, but the guy who put it together, um, who got all the grant money put together to build that. I don't know, I guess the story goes he died and everything fell to the bottom. And when you look at the design of the Sunterra and if you look at the design of the Gem itself, there are a lot of similarities, you know? You know the Gem engineers were looking at that and saying hey, that is a pretty neat design? So, I don't know.

ABG: Do you have any guess as to where you will be in the next five years? You know, either with the battery technology in the cars or, you know, electric fuels in Hawaii?

Julep: I don't think the view is going to change much. The progress is going to be slow. It all depends on battery technology, it really does. Because, you know, human beings are spoiled on speed and convenience. You know, if you can't go fast, if I have to plug it in every four or eight hours, I don't want it. If I can only go 30 miles, I don't want it. Give me 200 miles, so I don't have to worry about it every night. But a lot of people on the other hand are – it is going to be slow. It is education really. I mean, a lot of us are beginning to slow down and smell the roses, you know?

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