Call it the Big Island’s holy grail for electric cars.
Circumnavigating Hawaii Island is something many residents and visitors might take for granted, soaking in the views and experiences in a wide range of landscapes unlike anywhere else in the world.
But for those who drive the most popular and affordable types of electric vehicles (EVs), it’s a trip that can’t be done.
At least, not yet.
“It’s something I wouldn’t even try,” said Doug Teeple, owner of an electric Nissan LEAF and president of the Big Island EV (electric vehicle) Association. “Right now, it’s very difficult just to make the trip from Waimea to Hilo. … One of our (EV Association) members in a 2013 model (of the Nissan LEAF) recently made it across Saddle Road, and that was exciting … but risky.”
Running on fumes is never a fun proposition for fossil-fueled cars, even with gas stations located all over the island. EV charging stations are far more rare, vehicle ranges are more limited, and those stations that are available are mostly of older, Level I and II technology, which can take anywhere from three hours to a full 24 hours to charge a vehicle.
EV owners refer to the fear of running out of juice before reaching their destination as “range anxiety,” Teeple said, and nowhere in the state is range anxiety more of a concern than the Big Island.
So, when Charge Bliss partnered with the EV Association and the Shops at Mauna Lani in North Kohala to install the island’s first Level III DC (direct current) fast-charging station, EV owners stood up and took notice. A network of Level III chargers, which can charge a vehicle in as little as 30 minutes, would suddenly make the technology easily accessible, with shoppers able to charge while they browse, make a few purchases or grab a cup of coffee.
“The idea is to put in a network of eight or nine DC fast chargers, situated every 30 miles along the Belt Road,” Teeple said. “The idea is you could go anywhere on the island without any worries at all. It would be a tremendous boost for the EV.”
Now that Charge Bliss is on board, the challenge is to find isle businesses willing to partner with the company to install charging stations in their parking lots to grow the network, he said.
In a Tuesday phone interview, Doug March, the company’s vice president of sales and a Big Isle resident, said finding a commercial business willing to be the first to install a Level III charger was a challenge, especially after the failure of several other companies that installed Level I and II chargers up and down the west coast of the island.
“It’s a big issue for a host site (to install a Level III charger),” he said. “Where, for a Level II charger it might cost $2,500 plus installation … for a Level III with all the bells and whistles, like the one at Mauna Lani, costs can approach $60,000.”
The secret of Charge Bliss’ success in launching the first station has been to incorporate its unique smart grid electricity management systems with a charging system to help save partner businesses money on their electricity bills, March said.
“We can combine solar with standing storage batteries and our smart grid systems that can control all the electricity in the building. Imagine you’ve got a machine in your business, and when you turn it on it uses a ton of energy. You may have solar on your roof, but it can’t produce enough electricity for what you need as a business. What we can do is take from the solar and the battery first, before you begin pulling power from HELCO (Hawaii Electric Light Co.),” he said.
Charge Bliss also thinks its business model is sustainable on the island because of legislation that singles out EV charging. Part of what could potentially make operating a Level III charging system expensive is a penalty fee, or demand charge, which many utilities require based on the speed with which energy is drawn from the grid.
“A business with a bill of $80,000, it’s conceivable that $40,000 is just a fee because you’ve drawn that power at the wrong time or too quickly. … One of the great things the state of Hawaii has done, is that it legislated with the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) to remove those demand charges for Level III fast charging. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that’s done that,” he said.
Without that legislation, Level III chargers are so fast they could potentially rack up a penalty fee of $400 for a single charge, he added. EV owners looking to charge their vehicles at the new station in Mauna Lani, meanwhile, can expect to pay between $7 and $9 per charge.
While March says the largest hurdle has been jumped by installing the first Level III charger on the island, finding new partners to complete the network around the island will be a challenge, especially in areas in East Hawaii.
“We really want to find partners in that area. … If it was easy, they would have already been installed by now,” he said. “There’s been a resistance and a lack of familiarity. … But there’s no reason why EV chargers shouldn’t be available everywhere. … We just have to find the right partners.”
The company is actively seeking possible partners in Hilo and along the Hamakua Coast, as well as Hawi, Waimea, Keaau, Volcano and South Point.
Meanwhile, in its efforts to combat EV “range anxiety” for drivers making the trip over Saddle Road, Charge Bliss is hoping to talk with the Department of Defense about installing a charging station near the Pohakuloa Training Area, he said.
For more information about the network plans or EV ownership on Hawaii Island, visit evhawaii.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.