WAILUKU - There may only be about 50 electric cars on Maui today, said Anne Ku, director of the University of Hawaii Maui College's new Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance, but alternative-energy investors are banking on big jumps in the number of these more powerful and less expensive cars on Valley Isle streets soon.
Putting infrastructure in place to charge the electric vehicles up is key to growth, said Brian Goldstein, director of Better Place of Hawaii, whose company recently installed seven charging stations on Maui and 130 across the state.
Much like cellphone towers gave greater coverage to mobile phones and led to them being used by nearly everyone everywhere, Goldstein said, the easier his company makes it for people to power up their electric vehicles, the more likely it will be that Maui and Hawaii residents will literally buy into the movement.
Kihei resident Lou DiLiberto plugs in his Nissan LEAF electric car Wednesday morning. DiLiberto spent around $37,000, not including about $10,000 in state and federal refunds and tax credits, for his car and is part of a growing number of residents turning to such quiet, environmentally cleaner vehicles. He says his car drives about 100 miles on a single charge, which is enough for him to get around on Maui.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
After plugging in his Nissan LEAF electric car, Lou DiLiberto returns the charging cord to its station on the wall of his garage. More charging stations are being put in place to meet growing consumer demand and investor expectations for electric cars many hope will become more and more common.
The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo
"I think our name explains our mission, to create a Better Place," Goldstein said. "And our goals fit in well with those of Hawaii's to reduce the dependence on foreign oil by 70 percent by 2030."
Goldstein said he expects and hopes that the number of electric vehicles will go from about 350 now in Hawaii to 1,000 by the end of the year. The number of makes and models of such vehicles is expected to grow from three to about 18 in the next 18 months, he said. Those here now include the Chevy Volt, Mitsubishi i and Nissan LEAF. And Toyota and Ford soon will begin selling electric vehicles as well.
Kihei resident Louis "Lou" DiLiberto purchased a LEAF for around $37,000, not including $10,000 off in state and federal refunds and tax credits, he said.
His LEAF gets about 100 miles of driving on a full charge, which he said has been just fine for an island like Maui, where the car recharges while going down Haleakala or when he hits the brakes. And, he said he can always use the car's 110-volt plug at a house or business if he's visiting a friend or working.
Car owners joke that charging makes them "opportunistic," Ku said, for a plug and time.
"I spent the last three years getting solar panels on my house, and it seemed like a no-brainer," DiLiberto said. "I have free electricity, and now I get a car that runs for free."
He said the power is comparable to his VW Jetta with plenty of "get up and go."
"It's not like a race car, but I think it's the fastest thing on the road from 0 to 40. And it's funny because the engine makes no sound," he said.
DiLiberto said that with a regular plug, his car takes about 20 hours to charge entirely, or he can use the LEAF's 240-volt plug, which came with the car and pops into an major appliance outlet.
Better Place's chargers are 240-volt or Level 2 chargers and take four to eight hours to fully recharge a vehicle.
But there's another Level 3, 480-volt Hitachi charger that works in under 30 minutes, said Ku, whose alliance wants to make Maui "a paradise" for electric car people. And Japanese investors who are testing and improving Maui's power grid right now said they also may install up to 12 of the fast chargers on Maui soon, Ku said.
An electric vehicle costs DiLiberto's friend, who doesn't have solar power, about $60 a month to use, versus the $200 to $250 per month he was paying for gas, he said.
"I"m pretty satisfied with it, as you can imagine," DiLiberto said.
If the number of electric car owners increases, Better Place will be ready with more public stations, said spokesman Russell Pang.
Former Gov. Linda Lingle, whom Pang served as a media spokesman, helped push through the renewable energy and efficiency mandates.
Goldstein said Better Place has yet to set prices for the charging sessions but for now is offering free power-ups through the end of the year.
Maui's electric vehicle stations are located at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa and Westin Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali, Kihei Town Center, the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, Four Seasons Maui in Wailea, Alamo car rentals in the Kahului and Kapalua-West Maui airports, the Kahana Gateway Shopping Center and Jim Falk Motors and Maui Electric Co. in Kahului.
"We are proud to be one of the first resorts on the island of Maui to provide our eco-conscious consumers with a place to continue their efforts," said Maui Sheraton General Manager Tetsuji Yamazaki.
Each station costs up to $8,000 to install, Goldstein said. Better Place's funding comes from investors as well as the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism Energy Office and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Mayor Alan Arakawa said he welcomes Better Place, the industry leader, to Maui to see how cars, stations, renewable energy plants and MECO's test-phase intelligent electrical grids can all fit together.
The full potential of electrical vehicles is being explored on Maui through a variety of experiments and investments under way, Arakawa said.
The average person feels more comfortable having a charger nearby and gets used to the technology, Goldstein said. And seeing more people using the vehicles inevitably helps sales, too, he said.
Goldstein said Better Place partners with the hotels, high-traffic areas, like airports, and manufacturers to set up its outdoor "networks" and also sells car batteries.
Hawaii was chosen in part because the state has 90 percent of its fuel imported for electricity and has the highest gas prices in the country, Better Place officials said.
Goldstein said he can easily envision the day soon when electricity supplied by Maui's growing wind farms charge electric vehicles at almost every home at night.
For more information, to get a charge-up card and to see charging-spot maps, go online to www.betterplace.com/hawaii.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.