At a time when Hawaii is trying to become less dependent on fossil fuels, the state is also ditching a big incentive for drivers to switch to electric cars.

Last week, electric vehicle owners lost the free parking privileges they’ve enjoyed for the last eight years in public parking lots. Efforts by the Legislature this year to retain those parking benefits failed.

And while the free parking privilege will only affect a minimal number of drivers who have EVs, ending those privileges is sending the wrong message when the state wants to move to 100% renewable energy by 2045, environmental advocates say.

Electric Car Charging station at Ala Moana Shopping Center.
A rollback on parking incentives for electric vehicles is seen as a step backward for Hawaii’s clean energy goals. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On top of all that, electric vehicle owners will also have to pay an extra $50 a year on their registration because of a law passed last year.

“It’s not sending the right signals for where Hawaii is going,” Melissa Miyashiro, chief of staff for the Blue Planet Foundation, said.

Miyashiro and others say that more should be done to get people into electric vehicles. Some solutions include rebates for the cost of vehicles or investing in infrastructure that would help address some of the barriers to vehicle ownership.

Ground transportation in Hawaii accounts for about 28% of all carbon emissions in the state, and reducing that — along with other clean energy initiatives — is key to achieving the state’s energy goals.

Hawaii has had some incentives for electric vehicles since 1997 — including free parking — but those perks were formally put into law in 2012 by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. That law set June 30, 2020, as the “sunset date” for the benefits to end.

In 2012, there were just 879 registered electric vehicles in the state, according to data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. As of May, there were about 12,140 — a significant increase, but still only 1% of all vehicles in Hawaii.

Still, the free parking has created problems for some state agencies.

In testimony to state lawmakers, the Department of Accounting and General Services, which runs many of the state’s facilities, said that it loses between $20,000 and $30,000 each month because of the parking privileges.

The Department of Transportation said that, on average, electric vehicles take up 20% of the 4,740 stalls at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer, recognizes that free parking may be an issue.

“No one thinks it’s viable to just give away electricity or parking forever,” he said. “But, it’s important to send the right signal that we want people to transition. No one should expect free energy, but we should make sure it’s accessible, whether you’re a renter or homeowner or someone that wants to own an EV.”

Daniel K Inouye International Airport Interisland terminal parking lot empty due to very little passengers flying during COVID-19 pandemic. June 11, 2020
State agencies were seeking a compromise on parking incentives given to EV owners. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The DOT negotiated with lawmakers on a bill earlier this year to exempt airport parking from the law.

That bill, House Bill 1052, died early on this session. It would also have extended the sunset date until 2030 or until 10% of cars in the islands are electric.

Other bills to bolster Hawaii’s number of electric vehicles also died this session.

Miyashiro said Blue Planet closely watched House Bill 2493 earlier this legislative session. The bill would have offset a rebate for new EV buyers with a fee on those that still drive gas-powered cars. But that measure never got off the ground.

Another with a similar idea, House Bill 2462, would have given new buyers tax credits of up to $2,500 for vehicles that cost $50,000 or less. The bill was never taken up by the Senate.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee and pushed efforts to help expand access to electric vehicles, said in a text message Monday many of those proposals will need to wait because of the impact of COVID-19 on the state budget. Legislative leaders, including House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi, instructed legislative committees to not advance bills that might cost money.

Noel Morin, president of the Big Island Electric Vehicles Association, said that more EVs at the Hilo International Airport is one sign the free parking incentives could be working. He said losing the incentives would mostly affect people going on vacation or those who travel often for work.

But Morin also said that not having the incentive could make it harder to convince people to switch to an electric vehicle.

“There’s a lot of talk,” Morin said. “But there needs to be more aggressive actions.”

Improving Infrastructure

While parking incentives might be ending, another state law — as well as efforts by the city — could help to grow the infrastructure that can support EVs.

Last year, Gov. David Ige signed into law Act 142, which sets up a rebate program to incentivize building more charging stations.

Meanwhile, a new law on Oahu that would require new developments to wire roughly a quarter of parking stalls for charging stations is set to go into effect in September.

While the new law, better known as Bill 25, won’t require developers to actually have stations installed, it would require all the electrical infrastructure to be in place. Developers could also get building credits if they do provide plug-in charging stations.

How many charging stations could be made available under the new law is dependent on market conditions.

“As more people move to EVs, you’ll see more of them pop up,” Stanbro said.

From Mayors release. Right, Chief Resilience Officer Josh Stanbro, Honolulu Climate Change Commission Vice Chair Dr. Chip Fletcher, who is one of the authors of the Hawaiʻi and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands chapter of the report, and Honolulu Climate Change Commission Member Dr. Victoria Keener, who serves as the NCA Chapter Lead. The Assessment, released last Friday by 13 federal agencies including NOAA, details a multitude of current and future impacts of climate change in Hawaiʻi and the broader U.S
Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s resilience officer, says the city plans to focus on expanding infrastructure for electric vehicles. 

How many more drivers actually make that switch is yet to be seen. Sales for electric vehicles were expected to continue growing steadily, but with the coronavirus scrambling the global economy, those sales could become harder to predict, said Dave Rolf, president of the Hawaii Auto Dealers Association.

Hawaii was on track to add more than 20,000 electric vehicles per year to the road by 2045, according to Rolf’s projections. But now that outlook needs to be tweaked. 

Rolf thinks the pandemic could reduce car sales to 1990s levels, meaning sales of electric vehicles are likely to drop as well. And with them, some of Hawaii’s energy goals.

“The fastest path to developing all the wonderment of the future is through the car,” Rolf said. “Housing is connected to the car. The economy is connected to the car. Renewable energy development — that’s connected to the car.”

While EVs have become cheaper, clean energy advocates still think the government should find ways to help subsidize the cost of those vehicles.

Morin, the electric vehicle owner from the Big Island, said another issue has been fighting the perception that only the rich can own an electric vehicle.

“Maybe back in the early 2010s, when there was just Tesla selling at over $100,000, maybe that was the case, but prices have come down,” Morin said.

EVs are expected to hit the same price point as gas-powered vehicles in the next several years. However, even as more affordable models hit the markets, affluent buyers still make up the majority of the market for electric cars.

The city is still forging ahead on other efforts to move away from fossil fuels. Stanbro said the city should have a plan later this year for how it will switch its bus fleet to 100% electric by 2035.

The city is also looking into installing photovoltaic canopies with charging stations at city parks and facilities, according to Stanbro.

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