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Turning Over A New Leaf

November 20, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

During a recent trip to Honolulu I was surprised by the rental car agent who took me outside and offered me a rental Nissan Leaf Electric Vehicle (EV), with a charger line to an outlet like a horse tethered to a post in a Western cowboy movie.

The agent explained that the initial charge was “good” for about “100 miles”, and if the car’s battery charge went down, he said that the only “re-charging station” was back at the rental agency, and so he recommended me to return to the Honolulu International Airport rental office and I would receive a charged-up Nissan Leaf. The EV technology is advancing daily, and “faster” EV charging stations (and increasing their numbers) is a priority, as more EV’s are available at rental agencies and also bought by consumers in Hawaii.

Maui News Blog readers would expect me – a green-tech guy always open to new experiences (except spicy foods and bungee-jumping) -- to select immediately the Nissan Leaf, but I actually thought out loud that my business meetings (plus return trip to the airport) could exceed the EV’s battery charge mileage. It is psychological: if my gas tank was empty, I would re-fill almost anywhere on Oahu.

In short, I was afraid of becoming stranded on Oahu and miss my Krispy Kreme doughnut upon arriving back at Kahului Airport. Yet, I estimated that it was barely seven miles from Honolulu airport to downtown, and any other trips would be a few miles, and I wasn’t going over the Pali nor attending a baby luau in Nanakuli.

So I took off in the Nissan Leaf, my first ever EV driving experience. I was familiar with driving a Hybrid (a Toyota Prius), so the dashboard info read-out was not alien to me (a high percentage of EV buyers are Hybrid owners, just one step more into non-fossil fuel Promised Land). I did find myself glancing at the “miles remaining” figure. The “mileage remaining” number decreased quicker when I switched on the air-conditioner: the “total battery mileage” is dependent on many factors, like air-conditioner usage, vehicle load, stop-and-go traffic or efficient freeway “cruise” driving. The freeway acceleration was smooth and quicker than I imagined. I felt good when I sped along; unlike all my previous gasoline-powered rental cars, I did not have to dash into a service station just before returning the car to the rental office, as I intensively dislike the additional “fuel charge” when I forgot to fill-up the car.

Would I buy an EV in the future? The answer would be yes, if 1. the re-charging time became less than the hours it takes today and 2. if re-charging stations were available in many places, including parks, shopping malls, schools, and of course, at one’s home or condominium complex. If 2. arrived sooner, that would mitigate 1.

The ideal situation would be for solar or wind power to provide the stored electricity for charging EVs – since most of the electricity throughout Hawaii comes from burning imported oil, this is a contradiction when the goal is the lessen dependence on imported fossil fuel. One option is for wind-power to pick up the slack during night when many EVs are “at home”, charging away.

EVs are a major step in decreasing fossil-fuel cars from Hawaii/Maui streets, and any way to increase the numbers on the streets should be explored, including tax incentives and offering EVs to as many drivers as possible via rental car agencies (like me at Honolulu Airport).

The island of Maui is perfect for an EV experiment* – the limitations of living on the second-largest Hawaiian island is actually advantageous for growing an EV car population, along with mapping-out the recharging stations. Over 80 percent of Maui tourists rent a car, unlike the no-rental car shopaholic Waikiki-Ala Moana Shopping Center visitors on Oahu, and this presents an opportunity to give tourists an EV driving experience. Around Maui are several tourist-focused “centers” for re-charging station “mapping”: Lahaina and northern hotel/condo corridor, Kihei/Wailea/Makena, Ma’alaea, Up-Country, and the Kahului Airport- Paia -Haiku corridor (plus Hana), so it is not as complex as Oahu and its many “stake-holders” from hotels, parks, schools, shopping malls.

All this does not happen overnight – imagine the earliest car owners on Maui in the 1920s, confronted by the fact there weren’t any gas stations around Maui, and they had to plan out their travels around the island. In the late 1930s my father and his best friend “Alabama” took my uncle’s car out for a spin and promptly rolled into a ditch east of Paia – the mapcap adventures of two Nisei young men reflected the growing numbers of cars among pre-War plantation camp families, setting the stage for “town” society of the 1960. In 2011 probably more than 110,000 cars roam Maui Island; Oahu has seven times that number, on a smaller island.

Finally, the irony is that the first car that arrived in Hawaii (it was driven along the then-two way King Street) was a Woods Electric car (yes, an early limited-edition EV) imported by Henry P. Baldwin, then 57 years old and co-founder of Alexander & Baldwin, and Edward D. Tenney (later CEO of Matson Navigation). The date was October 1899, just six years after the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy and barely eight years before my grandparents arrived in Kahului. Just around that time clean-energy and efficient electric streetcars replaced horse-drawn cars (ending a lot of messy work for street-cleaners) as the backbone of the Honolulu mass-transit system.

What if EVs and electric-powered mass transit covered Maui Island? This would have meant a very different present-day Maui. So, it’s again back to the future.

P.S. When I returned the Nissan Leaf to the rental office some 12 hours after I drove off in the morning, I still had approximately 40 miles remaining in my EV car battery charge. And I spent the time I would have spent at the gas station for an extra doughnut.

*The island of Lana’i would be perfect as an Electric Vehicle micro-experiment, since Lana’i has about 2,500 people on an even smaller island with a very limited road network – and one car rental agency for visitors.


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