Hunt for green transport targets electric cars, bikes

A nanoblock model of JUMPSmart Maui’s demonstration project depicts the island and charging stations, as well as examples of households and cars participating in the electric vehicle project. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

KAHULUI — Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu said the most common question people have when they call the police is, “Where are they?”

“It happened two minutes ago, and (the police) are not here,” Faaumu said Thursday at the Maui Energy Conference. “That’s the most (common) questions, complaints that I get from our citizens.”

The Police Department wants to improve its response time while cutting down on the emissions produced by the department’s 320 vehicles, Faaumu said.

Every year, the fleet travels about 3 million miles and uses 100,000 gallons of fuel.

Just about everyone these days, from police to lawmakers to private businesses, is in the hunt for greener transportation, a major sector that takes up two-thirds of the state’s energy consumption, said state Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection.

“In the last three years, we’ve seen increasing gasoline sales in the state,” Lee said Wednesday during the conference’s keynote speech. “That is a trajectory which we need to change. We need to leverage those dollars into better investment in clean transportation.”

The two-day conference, which was put on by the Maui Economic Development Board and the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, concluded Thursday.

In the next five to seven years, it’s going to be cheaper to produce electric vehicles than cars that run on gas, Lee said. Once that happens, he predicted, the growth in electric vehicles will be “exponential,” and said Hawaii needs to be prepared by setting up more charging facilities for cars.

The Windward Oahu lawmaker said he would love to drive an electric vehicle but can’t yet, because he has to park on the street and doesn’t have a charging station. One bill in state Legislature, House Bill 2274, would increase vehicle-charging facilities.

As of February, there were 6,890 registered electric vehicles in Hawaii, out of 1.1 million passenger vehicles statewide, according to data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. That’s up from 1,200 electric cars five years ago, and 160 a decade ago.

Maui County branched into electric vehicle technology in 2011 when it partnered with Maui Electric Co. and Hitachi on the JUMPSmartMaui pilot program to promote the ecofriendly vehicles. By 2035, Maui County and the City and County of Honolulu hope to run their entire fleets on renewable power.

Honolulu also launched a six-week pilot program of its first electric bus in January. Meanwhile, Kauai County energy coordinator Ben Sullivan said that the county plans to triple its fleet of electric vehicles and wants to rely less on conventional rental cars.

Mayors of all four counties pledged in December to eliminate fossil fuels from all ground transportation by 2045.

“Electrification of vehicles is a really interesting piece, because when we look at our fleet, we know where the big use is, and it’s not passenger vehicles,” Sullivan said. “Although that’s where we can move right now — and it’s really important to move where you can — it doesn’t represent major progress in terms of reducing our fuel dependency. But moving on buses very much will, and eventually moving on things as the market opens up for things like garbage trucks and other vehicles.”

More EVs, less gas tax revenue

But the push toward cleaner, greener transportation has also raised questions — namely, how will the state fund its highway improvements as electric vehicles grow in popularity? The gas tax is the largest source of funding for state highways at 31 percent, said Murray Clay, managing partner with Ulupono Initiative, a sustainability investment firm. But electric vehicles don’t pay a gas tax, so as more of them hit the streets, gas taxes will decline.

“So we do have . . . a potential problem in the future,” Clay said.

The state Department of Transportation is doing a study on replacing the gas tax with a vehicle miles traveled tax, which would charge all vehicles the same rate per mile. But Clay said this would discourage energy-efficient vehicles. And, even though the gas tax hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years, the state highway fund has grown from $133 million in 1997 to $271 million in 2016.

Clay said a vehicle miles traveled tax “could be part of the right answer, but with EVs being such a small share of passenger vehicles, there’s really no need to switch over completely nor immediately.” He suggested instead moving gradually away from the gas tax while increasing the vehicle miles traveled tax, to offset the losses in gas taxes.

“It is possible to have everyone pay something for using the roads,” Clay said. “No one gets to use it for free, but at the same time, you’re still providing incentive for energy efficiency and reduced emissions.”

Clay added that “truthfully, it does take more emissions to create EVs.” But, he pointed to a 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, which found that electric vehicles create less greenhouse gas emissions than hybrids and gas-fueled vehicles over their full life cycles (from construction of the car to disposal).

Enticing riders

Convincing people to use more ecofriendly transportation — whether that’s a car, bus or bike — is another story.

“People don’t want to ride a bike because it doesn’t pollute, honestly,” said David Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition. “They want to ride a bike because it’s fun, because it’s fast, because it’s efficient, because it’s joyful.”

Bike-sharing programs have popped up around the country, including on Oahu that launched in June. The market for e-bikes is growing, too. Snyder said the bikes offer appeal because they can provide that extra push on hills and over long distances, encouraging people who might not normally ride bikes to give them a try. Maui has plenty of on-road bike lanes, but adding projects like the proposed 25-mile West Maui Greenway could encourage more bike use, he said.

David Graham, deputy chief operations officer for neighborhood services in San Diego, said that the city offers a service called “FRED: Free Ride Everywhere Downtown,” a ride-sharing service using electric vehicles funded by parking meter revenue.

“Not only is it helping to have a clean method of moving people and making more parking available, but it’s also creating a familiarity with EVs,” Graham said.

Making Hawaii cars, buses, harbors and airports more efficient is critical “if we’re going to be serious about carbon emissions,” said Brennon Morioka, general manager of electrification of transportation for Hawaiian Electric Co.

“When we talk about carbon emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels, we often focus our dependence of those on electrical generation,” Morioka said. “We do need to put a larger focus on what is the largest contributor to carbon emissions, and that is the transportation sector.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

COMMENTS