Interest high in firm's isle EV charging network
Feb 24, 2013 (The Honolulu Star-Advertiser - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The recent announcement by one of the state's largest electric vehicle charging networks that it would be pulling out of the Hawaii market initially raised concerns about the budding campaign to get EVs to catch on locally.
However, a strong interest from other companies that want to take over the Hawaii operations of Better Place should minimize the impact of its pending departure, government and industry officials said.
Better Place's announcement Jan. 16 that it would withdraw from the United States and Australia had more to do with the company's failure to demonstrate the feasibility of its battery-swapping concept for electric vehicles in other markets than any problems with its Hawaii charging network, said Dan Davids, a part-time Kaneohe resident who is a director for Plug In America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes the use of EVs.
Officials at Better Place's corporate headquarters have said their focus will be expanding the company's small network of battery-swap stations in Israel and Denmark. Those stations replace spent batteries with fully charged ones in about five minutes and are a quicker alternative to plug-in charging that can take 30 minutes to six hours depending the power of the charger.
"It's not a black eye for the effort in Hawaii. It's extremely unfortunate that the Hawaii operations got caught up in unrelated, bigger problems at the parent company," Davids said.
Better Place in 2011 received a $582,000 federal grant administered by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to install charging stations. Better Place installed 65 charging stations with 136 plugs at 42 locations. Better Place and fellow grant recipient AeroVironment installed about 60 percent of the state's 242 charging stations, according to data compiled by the state Energy Office.
The two firms were among six companies, government agencies and nonprofits to share $2.3 million in federal funds DBEDT disbursed as part of its EV Ready program. The program included additional funding that provided rebates of up to $4,500 to consumers who purchased an EV. The Energy Office issued 453 rebates for EV purchases before the funding was exhausted.
The charging station installations were done under cost-share contracts in which Better Place and AeroVironment, along with the site hosts, invested a "significant" amount in addition to the grant funding, said Mark Glick, Energy Office administrator.
Glick said he met with Better Place's Hawaii representative, Brian Goldstein, to discuss the company's plan for carrying out a "smooth transition" to a new operator of the EV charging network.
"We understand that the charging network is attracting a lot of interest from companies," Glick said.
Goldstein declined to reveal the names of prospective buyers, but said Better Place has narrowed it to two companies and is going through "final diligence." "Hawaii is seen as an attractive market with its high rate of EV adoption," he said. "We hope to have an announcement about the final selection very soon."
Goldstein said one of his goals is to make the transition "as seamless as possible to property owners and EV drivers."
Honolulu-based Volta Industries, which owns about a dozen free charging stations at shopping centers on Oahu, would be interested in selected Better Place sites if the company decided to sell its network piecemeal, said Scott Mercer, Volta co-founder. Volta's business model is to locate its charging kiosks in high-profile areas and earn revenue by selling advertising space on the units.
By contrast, Better Place offers a subscription-based model that features swipe cards used by members to access their accounts when they plug in at a Better Place charging station. The company has about 650 members in Hawaii. While Better Place has waived subscription costs since its entry into the Hawaii market, it had planned to eventually charge for memberships.
About 15 of Better Place's 42 locations statewide are in areas with a retail presence. The remainder are at hotels, rental car agencies and public parking areas.
ECOtality, a California-based company that operates a handful of charging stations in Hawaii under the Blink brand, wouldn't rule out the possibility of bidding for the Better Place charging stations.
"At this time, we cannot comment specifically on the Better Place infrastructure in Hawaii," said Scott Watkins, ECOtality spokesman, in an email. "However, as a provider of public infrastructure for electric vehicles, we are always looking to expand our network throughout the United States."
Although Hawaii is a leader nationally in the number of electric vehicles and charging stations per capita, the state is still running behind EV sales targets set in the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative in 2008. There were 1,136 registered EVs on Hawaii's roadways at the end of last year, up from 159 at the end of 2010, according to the state. Despite the high growth rate, authorities say it is unlikely EV ownership will hit the state's target of 10,000 by 2015.
One of the keys to boosting electric vehicle sales will be for automakers to increase the number of EV models in their lineups, said Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Auto Dealers Association. Currently the only major automakers in Hawaii with EVs on their lots are Nissan, Mitsubishi, Chevrolet and Ford.
EV offerings are likely to increase in the coming years as automakers look for ways to meet federally mandated corporate average fuel economy standards, Rolf said. The government announced last year that it will factor each sale of an electric vehicle by two starting in model year 2017. For example, an automaker that sells 10,000 EVs will be credited for 20,000 vehicles when calculating its fleet fuel economy.
Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Honolulu-based Blue Planet Foundation, said there are several things that could be done locally to boost EV sales.
One novel approach would be for Hawaiian Electric Co. to either subsidize or promote the sale of EVs as a way to boost electricity sales, he said. HECO took a similar approach in the early 1900s when it sold appliances and light bulbs to generate demand for the electricity it produced.
"It's like the printer-and-ink model," Mikulina said. "It could become a profit center for HECO."
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