Electric vehicles represent just a small fraction of the cars on Hawaii’s roads – about 1% of all registered passenger vehicles. Still, their local numbers have been swiftly rising, and some of the industry’s top automakers have plans to unleash scores of new EV models into the national marketplace soon.
Those trends have some Hawaii state lawmakers looking to make bold moves of their own during this legislative session, accelerating what’s widely seen as an inevitable transition from gas cars to zero-emission ones.
One bill moving through the House, House Bill 393, looks to set a date when new passenger cars powered solely by gas could no longer be sold in the state. Beyond that date, the only new cars that could be sold in Hawaii would be hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, or EVs and other zero-emission vehicles.
The bill’s introducer, Rep. Takashi Ohno, originally set the date for Jan. 1, 2030. Its most recent version doesn’t include a date, however, as state legislators consider the best approach. It also includes a “target” that all the state’s light-duty vehicles, generally those that weigh less than 8,500 pounds, be powered by renewable energy by 2045.
In the past year, industry and Wall Street “have all made similar bets that the future of transportation is going to look significantly different than we know it as today,” Ohno said Wednesday.
The idea of a state-mandated ban has received strong pushback from the Hawaii Automotive Dealers Association. Some of Ohno’s colleagues in the House have also voiced concerns that the bill could force consumers to pay thousands of dollars extra for an electric vehicle.
The price difference is narrowing, however, and is expected to disappear in multiple regional markets in the coming decade, industry experts say. In Hawaii, lawmakers need to be careful not to phase out sales of the gas-powered cars before that tipping point in price occurs, Ohno said.
Currently, the price difference is at least several thousand dollars, according to auto dealers on Oahu.
Still, phasing out the state’s more than 1 million registered gas-powered passenger cars and replacing them with electric ones and other zero-emission vehicles will be crucial if Hawaii is going to become carbon neutral within the next 25 years as part of its landmark clean energy law, officials say.
Hawaii’s ground transportation sector, which includes passenger cars, accounts for more than 4 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses emitted each year in the islands, according to the Hawaii State Energy Office.
In late January, the nation’s largest automaker, General Motors, announced plans to eliminate tailpipe emissions from all of its light-duty vehicles by 2035.
The company followed up about a week later with a Super Bowl ad featuring comedian Will Ferrell announcing plans to aggressively ramp up its EV portfolio and roll out 30 new EV models in the next four years:
In California, meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order requiring that all new cars and passenger trucks sold there be zero-emission vehicles in 2035.
“This is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change,” Newsom said in a press release. The order could be overturned by a subsequent governor, however.
In Hawaii, HB 393 would be more difficult to overturn, officials say.
Dave Rolf, the executive director for the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association, testified at a recent committee hearing that banning sales of new gas-powered vehicles would cause many consumers to buy them on the mainland and ship them to Hawaii, leading to a loss of business and tax revenues.
Rolf said the association does support an eventual, full transition to clean-energy vehicles — it’s just a matter of “the timeline and how that works.”
Aiming to have all passenger vehicles be zero-emission by 2045 would be too aggressive because it would force local dealers to ramp up their EV inventories too quickly, Rolf told lawmakers. He didn’t specify what he saw as a more reasonable timeline.
Separately, Hawaiian Electric has estimated that some 450,000 EVs will be on Hawaii’s roads by 2045, representing half of the state’s passenger vehicles.
Sales of used gas-powered passenger cars would still be allowed under HB 393, but the idea is that those cars would no longer be useful by around 2045, Ohno said.
Currently there are nearly 14,000 registered EVs in Hawaii, which is about twice as many as there were just three years ago, according to state data. That’s out of nearly 1.1 million total registered passenger vehicles, however.
The other big challenge facing Hawaii’s transition is sufficient charging infrastructure. The state currently has 728 charging outlets available to the public, based on the latest U.S. Department of Energy figures. That’s up from the 542 outlets that Hawaiian Electric had tallied in 2018.
The utility has estimated the state will need 2,200 total public outlets by 2045 to support the influx of EVs.
Hawaiian Electric for its part has installed 25 “fast-charge” stations around the islands, which offer cars a 45-mile range on a 15-minute charge, said Aki Marceau, Hawaiian Electric’s electrification of transportation director.
The utility aims to install seven times that number of stations in the coming years, and the private sector will need to provide “significantly more” than that, Marceau added.
Hawaiian Electric is currently tracking several dozen bills in the Legislature that could help get the stations installed faster. “There’s a lot of movement,” she said.
“It’s a very exciting time,” added Scott Glenn, who directs the Hawaii State Energy Office. “We’re having a lot of attention on all the issues that need to be addressed with this transition.”
Meanwhile, the price of the latest Nissan Leaf model has gone up, largely due to the car’s superior electric battery, officials say. At Tony Nissan a 2020 model is listed at nearly $29,000, versus $17,900 for what dealers said was the most comparable gas-powered hatchback, the Kicks.
A $7,500 federal tax credit for purchasing the Leaf brings those prices closer together. In the long run, those who can afford to buy the Leaf will save money on maintenance and fuel costs, said Kirsten Turner, deputy energy officer at HSEO.
It’s similar to the cost-savings that come over time from purchasing solar panels, despite the pricey investment up front.
HB 393 is currently awaiting its final hearing in the House, in the Finance Committee. If it passes, it will go to the Senate.
“I’m happy the bill is alive,” Ohno said. “If we can adopt this … I think it’s going to be a good thing for Hawaii. But I guarantee you the bill is not going to look the same way in a month.”
Join us for a virtual Legislative Update event to check-in with a panel of lawmakers halfway through the session:
A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.