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Charging Ahead

Hawaii Looks beyond Oil

(page 1 of 5)

On the sidewalk in front of the state Capitol, Gov. Linda Lingle climbs into the driver’s seat of a white and blue Nissan Rogue. But this is no ordinary Nissan. It’s an electric car, the demonstration vehicle for Better Place, a technology company with ambitious plans to persuade thousands of people that electric cars represent the future of Hawaii. A small crowd of press, politicians and energy buffs have come to see the Rogue and hear how it fits into the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI), the state’s bold new attempt to kick its oil habit. In the afternoon shade, they chat amongst themselves, slowly stepping aside as the governor executes an erratic loop around the statue of Father Damien. Because the car is completely noiseless, no doubt she hears her staff as they amiably disparage her driving. The governor smiles.

Somehow, the ordinariness of this gathering underscores the sense that we might be seeing history: that this normal-looking car — a basic crossover SUV, fit for a soccer mom (or a governor) — may be the missing link in the great quest to escape the tyranny of oil.

Of course, part of the vision for the HCEI has always been that it would be a magnet for companies like Better Place, making the state a kind of hot bed for energy high-tech. In fact, less than two weeks later, Phoenix Motorcars, a California-based electric car manufacturer, also showed up at the Capitol, touting another pilot project to test  electric cars in the fleet operations of the Maui Electric Company. But, whether it is Better Place or Phoenix Motorcars or another company altogether, someone will eventually have to answer the question that haunts the noble but quixotic dreams of the HCEI: “What about fueling transportation?”

Will the all-electric Nissan Rogue drive Hawaii's energy future?

The breathtaking scope of the Better Place plan, which includes 50,000 to 100,000 charging stations scattered throughout the state, is also the source of a kind of banality that makes it plausible. As Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi knows, for electric cars to work, they can’t be exotic. Charging has to be as easy and ubiquitous as going to the neighborhood gas station. The cars themselves have to be as cheap and ordinary as, well, a Nissan Rogue. Only scale makes that possible. Yet that very grandiosity is what makes us catch our breath. Because such ventures cannot succeed without the whole package, the plan will need the full partnership of the state and the electric company as well as power consumers.

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Hawaii Business,January