ENVIRONMENT / If you haven’t noticed, we’re in a full-tilt transformation away from conventional cars. Automakers still produce them, and are hurriedly adding on wonderful new efficiencies and technologies to meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. That’s great for the last days of the chapter, but it’s too late to save them as the predominant genre. The threat of peak oil prices and the call of the environment have already dulled their luster, and it’s time to move on.
The plug-in electric vehicle (EV) won’t solve all of our energy or transportation problems, but it’s part of a much larger movement toward efficiency and self-sufficiency. Is Hawaii ready to take the plunge to EVs? That’s the question.
In a world where eye-popping tech is around every corner, there are a number of entries vying for head of the automobile pack: EV, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell and diesel electric. The truth is that any of these could succeed. Every automaker has or is putting a horse into the race. It’s a moving target, with announcements being made as you watch.
There aren’t many EVs in Hawaii yet. The Nissan Leaf ($33,000 before credits) is coming any day. The Chevy Volt ($41,000 before credits) is coming soon, but it’s a hybrid, not a pure EV. The Leaf has a range of 100 miles and an EPA rating of 99 miles per gallon. With a 220-volt charger, it will take eight hours to charge. Three hundred people have put $99 down and are awaiting delivery. Now available in Hawaii is the Wheego, which seats two and gets 100 miles to the charge. But the EV to salivate over is the Tesla Roadster ($109,000 before credits), which has a range of 245 miles, a charging time of three to four hours, and can go from 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds. There are perhaps two of them here. They’re not exactly affordable.
Another EV to watch is the Ford Focus Electric, just announced for release in 2011. It can be charged in three hours with a 240-volt charging station that Best Buy will sell and install for you. These cars provide instant torque and put you back in your seat. Ford has an app that lets you check your Focus charge from your iPhone and has partnered with Microsoft to build a system that allows you to reduce costs by charging at off-peak hours, when utility rates are lower.
The race for renewables
It’s like the transformation in renewables (wind, photovoltaic, geothermal, ocean, hydro). Any one could succeed, but only one or a small combination of them will become predominant. On which should we put our money? We’ll have to see where the technology, the marketplace and the politics take us.
The same race presents itself with cars, although things move faster. This is a collective decision likely to be made within one car generation, that is, within no more than 10 years. What technology or combination of technologies will prevail?
Although the marketplace and the politics are not entirely predictable, the punt answer is that people are most often driven by convenience and price. Sure, the early adopters will embrace the most high-tech and environmentally sound cars-that’s what drives them. But most of us will be second-generation buyers, waiting for the early adopters to find the way in convenience and, of course, price. Let’s look at how convenience and price are shaping up for EVs.
Oahu is a great laboratory for EVs, because most drives are short. But that’s not a panacea for the dreaded “range anxiety.” For any sense of convenience, you absolutely must have a network of charging stations. If we build them, the anxiety is tolerable. If we don’t, EVs will be left stranded in favor of other technologies.
How many charging stations are enough for Oahu? The Gas Co., predictably, favors hydrogen cars and wants to build 25 hydrogen stations in the next five years. That number is instructive, and, numerically, 25 is a good start. For now, even with 300 Leafs on the way, Green Energy Outlet, the Wheego dealer on Cooke Street, may be the only location with a commercial charging station. There are various plans to build more charging stations early this year, but not all will be for consumer use.
One charging station is clearly not enough and the challenge is how to get more. They do cost money and in the absence of EVs, investors will be hard to find. It’s a chicken-egg thing. To give EVs a foothold, government needs to incentivize the charging stations, not only for drivers, but also to show dealers and automakers that we mean business and are an “EV- ready state.”
The Energy Office at the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) has $4 million of federal stimulus money to help. Of this, $1.4 million will go to rebates of up to $4,500 for EVs or plug-in hybrids and $500 for the purchase and installation of EV chargers. At $5,000 a pop, that would cover only 280 buyers. The balance of funds will be from grants to commercial charging-station developers, and DBEDT is in the process of contracting with the successful bidders. The stimulus money must be spent by April 2012, so there’s no time to dawdle. There’s also a federal tax credit for 50 percent of the cost of the charger up to $2,000 for a residence and up to $50,000 for a business installation. Are these incentives sufficient?
Investors who build commercial charging stations would suffer if the Leafs are delayed. Buyers who have signed up to buy Leafs have not heard from Nissan and have had difficulty in determining when they will get their cars. To keep up the EV momentum, we need to have these cars coming into the state when promised.
Many feel that the Nissan Leaf has the potential to transform the automotive industry and the way people drive. Check out YouTube and you’ll see lots of early adopters in a state of excitement about EVs. No, they don’t have the deep rumble of conventional cars, but they beat them at drag races. They’re silent, but their torque is amazing. They provide a new driving experience that most people will like a lot.
All charged up
You know how Mini owners have clubs where they can share their enthusiasm? Well, this month the Electric Vehicle Association of Honolulu was organized as a chapter of the Electric Auto Association. To join, you pay $35 on [eaaev.org].
You’ll go to EV rallies like the one that toured Oahu last week and ended up at Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako for food, music, politicians and press. There were only seven EVs at the rally, but the organizers promised many multiples of that at the second annual rally, which they are now planning. After all, we do expect 300 Leafs between now and then, don’t we?
For single-family houses, it’ll be relatively easy to install a charger. Condominium dwellers will find it somewhat more challenging. Despite Act 186, adopted last year to prohibit condo associations from barring the installation of chargers, condo boards have been slow to approve them over concerns about running cable to multiple individual parking stalls in the condo parking lots. These delays will continue, and we can expect a certain level of frustration among the early adopters.
Is charging safe? With the SAE J1772 connection standardized last January, there is no power until the charging cable is locked into the charging station, so you can’t get electrocuted unless you do something really dumb. Will this be covered under existing car and condo insurance? Ask your broker.
A Level I charger takes 110 volts and could require more than 15 hours to charge. A Level II charger takes 240 volts and requires three to eight hours, and would be the best approach for most people, who already have that voltage at home. The Level III charger takes 480 volts and could complete the charge in minutes, but will cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most people won’t spend that much. Tesla and others are building induction chargers that charge wirelessly, and that’ll be another game changer.
The Level III charger would be most useful for a commercial charging station. People will pay for a fast charge, and you can charge more cars in a given period. Gas stations would be well advised to include these charging stations. Parking lots have to include them starting this year under the charging-station bill lobbied by Better Place when it came to town a couple of years ago. We can also expect tow trucks to be outfitted with chargers to help you on the highway.
Better Place designed a carwash-like machine that switches your battery in 10 minutes. Will the replacement battery be as good as the one you’re giving up? Switchable batteries were to come with the Nissan-Renault EV that Better Place was going to market, but we haven’t seen them yet. It looks as though each EV will have its own integrated battery, so switchability may not be happening.
EV makers say the batteries will last for the life of the car but if that’s not so and you need to replace one for any reason, a new battery will cost you as much as $12,000. That’s not affordable, either.
The EV will change the landscape for auto dealers, too. EVs don’t need as many moving parts and won’t require as much maintenance and repair. Space requirements at dealerships are likely to be affected. Car buying and leasing are also likely to migrate to the Web. EVs are more like commodities or computers, and the web will be a more viable venue for many EV customers.
Just as a century of car development has nurtured the development of a huge assortment of accessories, EVs will likewise call for lots of accessories. Although they can also be sold on the web, the likelihood is that dealerships will continue to carry those accessories. This means the empty floor space at the dealerships will be reallocated to charging stati