Getting off the gas in Hawaii - part 2: The first electric car in Hawaii

Inside the Enova Hawaii garage. Click to enter gallery.

Enova Systems, based in Torrance, California, is known for converting heavy-duty vans and buses to using fuel cell and hybrid powertrains ( read previous ABG stories on Enova). In Hawaii, the Enova branch is also working on all-electric conversions. The Honolulu garage does have three fuel cell vehicles (running 20kWh and 65kWh fuel cells that power an airplane tug and a step van), but when I met with Todd Martin, manager of the Hawaii office, we discussed the company's all-electric systems.

The Enova location in Honolulu is also home to one of Hawaii's Posi-charge stations, which can quickly charge an EV, and a sign outside reads "HCATT - Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies."

Martin walked me around the garage and explained the hows and whys of the vehicles Enova is converting. One project Martin was working on when we met in November was taking the original engine out of a delivery van and comparing the fuel economy of a new diesel-engine parallel hybrid drive train to the original. Over in a corner of the garage sits a bit of Hawaii EV history: a Geo Prizm that was the first EV registered in Hawaii in recent times . When you look through the gallery of photos that accompany this post, you'll see a license plate that reads "Electric Vehicle 1." That's the car, and it's the vehicle Martin and I started talking about...

Read our interview after the jump and check out part one of the Alt Fuel Hawaii series here. Check back tomorrow Click here for the wonders of the Bio-Beetle on Maui.

Martin: This, this is one of our projects that we've done in the past here. This is going back ten years probably now actually. It was a pure electric sedan.

ABG: So that's electric vehicle number one?

Martin: Yeah, exactly, yeah.

ABG: That was converted here or...

Martin: Yeah, and then it's kind of a long story. But we started out as a company called U.S. Electric Car, which is now gone. It became Enova Systems. There was a merger between the two companies and we became Enova Systems. U.S. Electric used to have what was called a Hughes Dolphin drive system. And we went ahead and removed all those drive systems. There was, there was like an AC drive system. At the time it was state of the art. But bigger and better things came along. So we then retrofitted into what we call a Panther, the Panther 90. And again this is – we're not going into production with this or anything – but this runs a hopper battery pack. It's a Panther 90, a 90 kilowatt drive system and it has a hopper lead acid battery pack that'll run 52 amp hours worth of batteries in there. It's basically a 50-mile vehicle.

ABG: Okay. How much of an increase is that over the one that was in here before?

Martin: In this case it's the same battery pack. We just changed out the electronics. That battery pack will run the same. As a matter of fact this is on its second battery pack I think.

ABG: So it's been running on electric power for how many years?

Martin: For probably ten years. It's just a really benign duty cycle around the area really. It hasn't been in heavy street operation or anything.

ABG: It's used in more for demonstrations?

Martin: Yeah, pretty much and the state office uses it here kind of as their shop car.

ABG: Okay.

Martin: A similar story here with this truck except it's a truck and it has a bigger battery pack. It's a pure electric. It's rather older again but it's been a great truck for us. One of the additives this has is fast-charge kick ability. It also has a six-kilowatt onboard charger. So it'll take six, seven, eight hours for a full charge. This back charger here you can charge the whole car in about 30 minutes for the most part. It's a 50-, 60-mile truck also. But the nice thing here is you can turn right back around and in a half hour be mostly full again.

ABG: And the fast charge units are here and then up at HECO [Hawaii Electric Company], right?

Martin: Yeah, they're up at HECO but HECO doesn't really do anything with them. They're here and they've been various places around the island. We have one all the way up in Lanai. The City and County of Honolulu has some of these same trucks. But I know that when the EV mandate went away a lot of this big interest in rapid charge kind of fizzled out and then came in hybrids all of a sudden. Now it's starting up again, all the interest is coming back again with the lithium battery packs. Maybe it does make sense. But the part of the hydrogen that seemed to make sense is you can carry a hell of a lot more energy in hydrogen onboard than these battery packs.

ABG: And do you usually have vehicles in the shop here? Is there always something to be working on?

Martin: Yeah, we've always got something on. Our two big projects are these white vans. They're just now kind of getting underway. But this was this is what will be in the shop in 2007. This will be a pure electric lithium powered van for Hickam Air Force Base. We took out – it was a gasoline powered V8 engine, we just gutted it out and are getting ready to convert it.

ABG: About how long will that take you?

Martin: The conversion itself we can do rather quick. If we had all the parts here today we could probably do it in six weeks or so. The slow thing is going to be getting the lithium battery packs. We're still looking into suppliers on that. We're looking at maybe 300-, 400-volt levels. We're not looking at little laptop levels.

ABG: And that bus over there?

Martin: This one here, this is a five-year-old bus. I'm changing the batteries on it now. Nothing real exotic. It has these double lead acid golf cart batteries in it. They're cheap, easy to get, easy to dispose of and the type of duty cycle it has – it runs passengers on Hickam Air Force Base from the terminal out to the aircraft and back. So it's just these little batteries that are ideally suited for that type of thing.

ABG: And so this is something that you build and design yourself?

Martin: Yeah. We're just a small, small portion of our company. Well, our entire company is small I should say. But we're out of Torrance, California and this has all been designed and built by our software and hardware guys in Torrance.

ABG: The company, was it started here and then combined with Enova?

Martin: No, it was started on the mainland and it over came or U.S. Electric Car came over here as part of the initial electric project in July '94. That's one thing about our product is no matter what vehicle it is - with a few exceptions - it's all the same hardware. We do all of those changes from vehicle to vehicle just with software changes.

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