Hyundai’s Kona Electric SUV has plenty of room for beach outings, a range of 258 miles and numerous awards and accolades.

But don’t try to buy one in Hawaii. The compact electric SUV named after the Big Island town isn’t actually sold in the islands.

The reason: Hyundai’s shipping them all to states like California and Oregon, which require certain percentages of cars sold to be electric, said Sean Charlston, sales manager for Tony Hyundai Autoplex in Waipio.

Meanwhile, Charlston said, the dealership gets five or more calls a week from people interested in the Kona. “We’ve been told to sit tight,” he said.

Finding a greater variety of electric vehicles for sale in the islands is just one challenge clean transportation advocates face as they campaign to get more electric cars on Hawaii’s roads. They’re also pushing for more charging stations and are supporting a Honolulu City Council bill that would require developers to wire newly constructed parking lots to make it easier to install charging stations.

Electric Car Charging station at Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Supporters of a City Council bill to mandate “EV-ready” parkings stalls at newly built commercial and residential developments say the measure will “future-proof” the buildings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer, calls the council measure a critical step in the effort to fight climate change.

“It really lays the foundation for the buildings we’re going to be living in and tapping into for the next 50 years,” he said. “We’re not going to solve the climate crisis by sitting on our hands. We’ve got to do these kinds of things.”

The Next Push In Hawaii’s Green Initiative

The focus on transportation marks the latest phase of an ongoing push to make Hawaii a leader in renewable energy. Despite a law that requires virtually all the electricity sold in the state to be produced with renewable resources by 2045, transportation remains a challenge.

The sector accounts for two-thirds of the state’s overall energy usage, according to the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. And most of that energy comes from fossil fuel. The airlines feeding Hawaii’s tourism industry, for example, depend largely on petroleum-based jet fuel and have a massive carbon footprint. The vast majority of Hawaii’s cars and trucks also run on gasoline. Ships propelled by oil-based bunker fuel use more.

While there’s no plan to start flying electric passenger jets any time soon, cars are a different story.

Last week, officials from the State Energy Office, the Hawaiian Electric Cos., Blue Planet Foundation and Ulupono Initiative gathered at a car wash on Kapiolani Boulevard to celebrate a milestone: Hawaii now has 10,000 electric vehicles on the road. Per capita, Hawaii ranks second behind California in its adoption of electric cars, Stanbro said.

Sales are booming. Just 311 electric vehicles were sold in Hawaii in 2011, the year the game-changing Nissan Leaf went on sale in Hawaii, said Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Auto Dealers Association. Dealers are on track to sell about 2,200 electric vehicles in 2019, Rolf said.

The downside is that 10,000 vehicles don’t add up to much in a state that has about 1 million vehicles on the road.

“It’s still just 1%,” said Lauren Reichelt, director of clean transportation programs for the Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy.

The current battleground for green transportation advocates is Bill 25 now before the Honolulu City Council. Its purpose is to regulate the design and construction of residential and commercial buildings to promote energy efficiency. One provision requires new buildings to wire at least 25% of the parking spaces so EV charging stations can be set up in the spaces immediately or in the future as more people buy electric cars and need the stations.

But the bill is getting strong pushback from a group with considerable clout: builders and construction trade associations.

Opponents say the requirement will increase housing costs on an island where home prices already are out of reach for many people. Harry Saunders, president of Castle & Cooke Hawaii, estimates the measure will cost $11,000 extra per EV-ready parking stall. It’s a big investment, he testified, when just one out of 100 cars is now electric.

Meanwhile, Saunders questioned whether the move would do much to reduce energy use.

“It is highly questionable that providing 25% of the parking stalls to address less than 1% of the vehicles on Oahu will actually result in energy savings,” Saunders wrote in testimony opposing the measure. “We do know that such a 25% mandate will require max capacity planning for us and HECO resulting in increased transformer capacity for the projects and the entire community resulting in higher development costs to be passed on to all home buyers.”

Nathaniel Kinney, executive director of the Hawaii Construction Alliance, represents some 15,000 members of local construction unions, including carpenters, masons and bricklayers. He echoed Saunders and said the bill means a loss for potential home buyers and workers.

“The issue for us is any costs that are added on makes it harder for people to buy houses,” he said in an interview. “And if people can’t buy houses, people won’t build houses. And our guys will be sitting on the bench.”

Green transportation advocates acknowledge making the parking stalls ready for charging stations will add to building costs, but they say it’s cheaper to do so now – it means installing  wiring, conduits and electrical panels from the beginning — than to retrofit buildings to add everything later.

Retrofitting costs about four times as much, said Michael Colon, Hawaiian Electric’s manager for the electrification of transportation. Holding off from making parking stalls EV ready now simply shifts higher costs to future residents, Colon said.

“It’s just incongruous to wait when we’re moving in this direction,” he said.

Blue Planet thinks Honolulu should go even further. Melissa Miyashiro, Blue Planet’s chief of staff, said Honolulu should follow the lead of Vancouver, which requires 100% of stalls be EV ready.

Caitlin Cortez, left, and Casie Cortez of Kailua check out a Tesla at a showroom in Ala Moana Center. Although the company’s most affordable option, the Medal 3, still sells for more than $35,000, prices for electric cars are expected to drop significantly in coming years. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

In its testimony, Blue Planet also points to U.S. cities that have created mandates tougher than Honolulu’s proposed measure. Atlanta, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle all require a certain number of stalls be ready for so-called Level 2 stations, which charge cars faster that the Level 1 stations envisioned in Honolulu’s proposed ordinance.

Supporters also rebut criticisms that the proposal would increase housing costs, and by extension the cost of living, for many Oahu residents. Stanbro said electric vehicles are much cheaper to maintain than gasoline cars, with fewer moving parts and little service required. But a current paucity of charging stations in multifamily buildings puts the lower-cost option out of reach for the majority of Oahu residents.

Finally, Stanbro said the building industry’s cost estimates for making parking stalls EV ready are inflated. The cost per stall is closer to $850 to $900, he said. That is based on sources like Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that serves Northern California.

Daryl Takamiya, a senior project engineer for Castle & Cooke, said that the sorts of projects the company builds usually involve sprawling town home projects with large parking lots. To wire the parking stalls is much more difficult than wiring a parking deck in a condominium tower, for example. The Castle & Cooke type projects would need extensive trenches, conduit and wiring spread out over a large area, which he said explains the high cost.

Asked about Stanbro’s estimate, Takamiya said, “I’ll hire him to install it at that price.”

New Technologies

While the City Council deliberates over Bill 25, technology continues to advance, holding out more possibilities for greening Hawaii’s ground transportation.

For example, the Elemental Excelerator, which works with promising startups in the renewable energy sector, recently announced a partnership with Amply Power, a Silicon Valley startup that sells fixed price contracts to provide charging for private and government EV fleets.

While fleet operators often have to contend with variable prices for fuel and electricity, Amply lets operators lock in a price, said Dave Siegal, the company’s director of operations. The company handles needed infrastructure, and its software enables operators to get the best deal for electricity by buying power when it’s cheapest.

The Ulupono Initiative, meanwhile, which invests in renewable energy companies among other sectors, is bullish on a company called EverCharge, which provides smart charging stations designed to optimize the energy used in apartments and condo buildings so electric cars can be charged most efficiently.

Hawaiian Electric expects the ownership of electric vehicles to explode over the next generation, to 430,000 on Oahu alone by 2045.

But don’t expect certain popular electric vehicles to be on sale here in Hawaii any time soon.

Hyundai’s Kona Electric is a case in point. Derek Joyce, a spokesman for Hyundai in Fountain Valley, California, confirmed the company sends the bulk of its electric Konas to states with zero-emission vehicle programs, also known as “ZEV states.”

Those states require manufacturers to meet certain goals for selling electric cars, he said.

Hawaii’s air is too clean to allow it to qualify as a ZEV state under the U.S. Clean Air Act, said June Chee, an analyst with the Hawaii State Energy Office. The upshot: If you live in Kona, you’ll have to go to a ZEV state like California or Oregon to buy an electric Kona.

“There’s so much demand in those areas, so that’s where we focus,” Joyce said.

“Hawaii’s Changing Economy”  series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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