About once a month, Dennis Leonetti wakes up around 4 a.m. to make the 12-mile drive from his Waikiki apartment to Pearlridge Center to plug in his Tesla.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeThe shopping mall parking lot is currently the only place in the state with a set of Tesla Superchargers, capable of adding 200 miles of range to his Model Y in no more than 15 minutes. His apartment complex lacks its own charging station, he said, and he relies on publicly available ports to charge his car.

“There’s nothing wrong with Pearlridge,” he said. “But you have to drive to get there.”

Leonetti’s trek speaks to a growing problem facing electric car owners in Hawaii. As more and more drivers in the state make the switch to electric vehicles, or so-called EVs, managers from townhouses to high rises are dealing with requests to install charging stations in their parking structures. But costly regulations, infrastructure barriers and lengthy permitting processes have delayed many buildings from installing these chargers, slowing the EV adoption rate.

As of March, there were about 1 million registered passenger vehicles in Hawaii, with about 19,000 of those being electric vehicles, according to the monthly energy trend report by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

That represents a nearly 35% increase in electric vehicles in Hawaii from the same month last year, the report said. There are also about 24,000 hybrid vehicles.

The Hawaiian Electric Co. anticipates EV ownership to increase in the coming generation. The utility estimates there will be 430,000 electric cars on Oahu alone by 2045.

The company also estimated that the state would need 3,651 publicly available charging stations to meet necessary demand by 2030.

McGrew Point Pearl Harbor Aiea Pearl City Pearlridge HART rail aerial1.
Waikiki resident Dennis Leonetti drives to Pearlridge Shopping Center once a month just to charge his Tesla. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

There are currently just 781 public chargers in Hawaii, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, meaning the state has just a little more than a fifth of the total public EV chargers it will need by 2030.

That leaves an insufficient amount of chargers available to those without one at home. And that fleet of new EV cars in Hawaii is growing, said Nanette Vinton, founder and president of the Tesla Hawaii Club and board member of the Hawaii EV Association.

Infrastructure for EVs has become both a national and an international agenda item, with the Biden administration setting a goal of building a nationwide network of 500,000 public charging stations by 2030. A total of $5 billion is dedicated to building this network, which comes from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

An additional $2.5 billion is set aside for a grant program, which will fund projects supporting rural charging, improved local air quality and increased EV charging access in disadvantaged communities, according to the White House.

Hawaii is expected to receive $18 million from that bill over the next five years to support building out its public EV charging network. The state’s congressional delegation has also earmarked nearly $3 million for EV charging stations on Oahu and Kauai, and the state will have the opportunity to apply for additional funds through the federal grant program.

Vinton expects President Joe Biden to increase the EV charger infrastructure, but warns that it is too early to estimate its full impact until the state Department of Transportation presents a deployment plan for approval.

The global EV charging station network meanwhile is expected to grow to more than 30 million units by 2027, from an estimated 2 million units in 2020, a study by Research and Markets found. This market size is projected to explode into a $115 billion industry by 2028, a separate study by Facts and Factors found, growing from around $18 billion in 2021.

Varying Costs

The cost to install these chargers is hard to pin down, said Shawn Moorhead, vice president of market and business development at EverCharge, a local company that sells EV chargers.

While the cost of an actual EV charging unit varies depending on brand and features, installation costs are primarily driven by location, he said. These site-specific factors include the availability of electrical capacity and proximity to an electrical source, he said.

There are two main routes in which multi-unit buildings can opt to install EV chargers, he added.

The first option is to dedicate a specific site for shared use among residents, which will most likely be a 240-volt charger model, or a so-called “level 2 charger.”

Tesla EV electric vehicle chargers at Ala Moana Shopping Center.
The price of a charging station can vary greatly. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

On the low end, the price to install these ranges from $10,000 to $15,000, Moorhead said. This would happen when few upgrades to electrical features need to be made. On the pricier side, these projects could range from $30,000 to $40,000, where complex electrical infrastructure needs to be installed to handle the electrical demand, he added.

The second option is to add “EV-ready” infrastructure to parking structures. Essentially, this enables residents to tap into a main line to install a charger at their designated stall. These costs also fluctuate, with individual EV owners usually on the hook to provide the charger.

Installing this infrastructure is increasingly being marketed as a luxury amenity, Moorhead said, right up there with swimming pools and gyms.

State laws require new buildings to have EV-ready features in them already. Meanwhile, parking lots with more than 100 stalls need to have electric chargers.

Lastly, “fast chargers” — which range from 400-volt to 900-volt — offer the quickest charge time but are also the most expensive to install. These cost as much as $150,000 to $200,000, Moorhead said, and they are typically found at commercial locations.

Renters Lack Access

About 40% of Hawaii’s housing units are in multi-unit dwellings, which present a pain point in the push for EV adoption, officials said. One of the biggest barriers a prospective EV owner considers is access to a charger, advocates say, and right now older buildings and townhouses severely lack them.

Partly that’s because of the unique challenges that come with installing a charger in these buildings or townhouses. Managers have to consider lengthy permitting, assigned parking, cost allocation and coordination with their homeowner association, officials say.

Despite this, EV advocate Vinton says that building managers are required by law to at least consider any proposal for charger installation that comes their way.

Ernie Provencher, president of the Kaimala Marina Homeowners Association, said that his condominium does not have any EV charging stations available for tenants. So far, he has only been approached a few times with requests for them, he said.

The association president said that he will suggest EV chargers to his board within the next few months but that there are multiple challenges, including finding available spaces for the chargers, a source of electricity for them and initial funding for installation.

He asked, “Do people who pay maintenance fees want to contribute to such a thing?”

Tesla electric car.
While the number of EVs on Hawaii roads have increased, access to more charging stations has been limited. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

He anticipates that people with internal combustion engine cars may push back on the idea of contributing to an EV charger they cannot utilize. To address this, he plans to advocate that the chargers will ultimately add value to the complex, and that the facility could charge a fee for using the chargers to recoup some of the initial investment.

Many building managers and associations at high rises are currently prioritizing updating their fire safety codes, which has also slowed the rate chargers are being installed in these areas.

After a fire killed four people at the Waikiki-based Marco Polo building in 2017, a law was passed a year later mandating buildings over 10 stories tall to either update their sprinkler system or pass a point-based system measuring other safety features such as smoke detectors, alarm systems and concrete walls.

The cost for some buildings to upgrade their fire sprinkler systems could be as high as $5 million.

Darrell Omuro, general manager at Royal Capitol Plaza, said there are currently no EV charging stations in his building’s five-story parking garage. He added that the parking structure does not have the electrical capacity to host EV charging stations at the moment and that “red tape” is slowing the process.

David Smith, who was one of the first people on Oahu to have received a Tesla, started lobbying for a charging station in his building in 2012. At first, he relied on public charging stations because where he lived, the Pacifica, lacked its own ports.

Five years after his initial request, the Pacifica installed 12 personal EV chargers and two public chargers, which are available for all residents, Smith said. The condominium capped it at this number because of its maximum electrical capacity, he added, and the building also needed to switch over to LED lights in order to service the chargers.

“People without EVs were willing to go along with it,” he said. “Especially those who were considering purchasing an EV.”

He estimates that there are currently about 20 to 30 residents who own EVs at the luxury complex.

Leonetti, who commutes to Pearlridge Center for his fill up, also serves on the board of his homeowners association. He said that the association of the 428-unit building is opting to delay discussions of installing EV chargers because of the long list of agenda items it needs to address first.

He joked that pushing for a charger, at the moment, would be too “self-serving.”

The Legislature established an EV charging system rebate program to boost the installation of charging stations in 2019. The program was reinstated this year, paid in part by Hawaii’s tax on barrels of oil, said Sen. Chris Lee, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Apartments and other rental units along McCully Street near Waikiki.
Lawmakers hope a new rebate program could convince developers and property owners to acquire more charging stations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The rebate will cover up to $4,500 for a new level 2 charger and $3,000 to replace an old one, and it will also cover $35,000 for a new fast charger and $28,000 for a replacement.

If the chargers are privately owned, the state is currently not planning on funding any maintenance for the chargers once they are built, Lee said.

The rebate bill aims to target apartment buildings, multi-family dwellings and companies to address a lack of chargers available in these areas.

In a preamble to the rebate bill, lawmakers wrote that a lack of charging infrastructure “remains a barrier to more widespread adoption of electric vehicles.”

So far, these rebates have helped to build 122 charging stations across the state. There are even more EV charging stations “in the pipeline,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen, one of the rebate bill’s introducers.

Amy Weed, founder of Honolulu Exotics, said that her company is currently in the process of applying for a rebate from the state. Her business installed four Tesla wall chargers on Sand Island Access Road about a month and a half ago. The communication from the state, she said, has been prompt throughout the process.

She said she would advocate for continued governmental support for businesses, like hers, that are investing in EV infrastructure.

Hawaiian Electric is asking the Public Utilities Commission to install 150 EV fast charging stations and 150 level 2 charging stations at roughly 75 sites across the utility’s service territory. If approved, the company will begin installing these chargers next year until 2030.

The utility currently has 25 fast charging stations throughout the state, with five of those currently out of service, according to its website.

Leonetti said he would never convert back to a car with an internal combustion engine, despite the current inconvenience of having to drive 12 miles to get to the supercharger.

He said that the growing demand for EV charging infrastructure is creating a “tremendous business opportunity” for companies in and around Honolulu. He added that he has no preference on which business, utility or government agency builds them.

He added, “I just want power.”

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