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Turning It On

Wholesale Motors Inc. plans a new commercial facility that runs on alternative energy.

Joe Nicolai was traveling through Eastern Europe, as he often does, a couple of years ago, when it dawned on him. “It just seemed to me that if they can generate 18 percent of all power needed in a place called Stutgard, Germany, which never even sees the sun, that they should be able to do something over here where we get the sun all the year round,” he recalls.

Nicolai, president of Wholesale Motors Inc., had seen the light and he liked what he saw. Wholesale Motors’ divisions include dealerships on Oahu and a number of Neighbor Islands and the recently announced World Trade Center Honolulu (WTCH) office and retail project. Under an agreement with the state, Wholesale Motors plans to build a 400-foot tall building at the Ewa-Mauka corner of Kapiolani Boulevard and Ward Avenue. The first three levels will be dedicated to a motor vehicle galleria that will showcase foreign countries where different brands of vehicles are manufactured. What’s putting Nicolai on the cutting edge these days is that the WTCH will add to his properties that are among the first, if not the first, dealerships in the nation to run solely on alternative energies.

Sun Cells: The photovoltaic system on JN Automotive’s Maui showroom and dealership is a green way to save money.

Two Wholesale Motors dealerships have been outfitted with photovoltaic systems within the last year. One is on Nimitz Highway on a building that’s leased to Honolulu Ford. The other is at Nicolai’s Maui car and motorcycle dealership. The Maui showroom and dealership is also cooled using an ice-chiller system on which Maui Electric Co. (MECO) is collecting data. By the end of this year, Nicolai plans to break ground on a new facility at the site of the old Kelly’s Coffee Shop on Nimitz Highway, where he will move all of his two-wheel operations. Of course, this facility will also be as energy self-sufficient as is economically possible, given current Hawaii laws governing our utilities’ buying back excess energy generated by commercial operations such as Nicolai’s. Nicolai says it may have been a case of the blind leading the blind, but he charged his son, Brad, with researching Wholesale Motors’ use of photovoltaic energy about four years ago, when Brad was still a college student. Today, Brad Nicolai is Wholesale Motors’ project manager for alternative energies.

These have been significant investments for a significant Hawaii business. Wholesale Motors had $115.8 million in 2000 gross sales, making it No. 61 on the 2000 Hawaii Business’ listing of the Top 250 companies. The company’s 2001 sales grew to $133.7 million, which Nicolai says was a result of opening the Maui Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki, Vespa, Audi dealership and adding the Ferrari franchise to his stable. Wholesale Motors has spent almost $800,000 for a photovoltaic system, ice chiller and efficient lighting on Maui and another $352,000 for the Oahu photovoltaic system at the Honolulu Ford location.

Nicolai admits to some irony, in that his core business is the sale of fossil-fuel guzzling vehicles, but says the move to photovoltaic will improve his bottom line. Nicolai says, “There wasn’t any particular mission. Just to me, it made good business sense to put ourselves in a position where we didn’t have to rely on fossil fuels, and it’s sort of a counterpoint to the business that we’re in, too. I mean, we’re in the automobile and motorcycle business, and, of course, all you greenie, you Ralph Nader types, think we ought to go back to donkeys. But, being in this business, it is sort of counterpoint being at the cutting edge of energy self-sufficiency and cleaning up the environment and all that kind of stuff.”

Nicolai says utility bills at the Honolulu Ford building have shown that the photovoltaic system has been saving 50 percent of the facility’s energy costs, and he expects to recoup his investment into the system (which has a 25-year-warranty) in six to 10 years. He hopes this will set an example.

“It looks that way, sort of a beacon for others to follow, if it works, and it is working. We haven’t really been blowing our horn about it yet, because we wanted to get several years under our belt to make sure that it’s going to be doing what we think it will do. But certainly at (the WTCH), since that’s close to the Capitol and across from Blaisdell and NBC and in the center of town. On that one, if we do it right, clearly that’s going to be an example for others to follow,” says Nicolai.

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