Hawaii is a beautiful state with warm tropical weather, but it's also an expensive place to drive despite the limited travel distances on each of its islands.

Fuels have to be brought in by ship, and its gas prices ($4.45 a gallon this week) are some of the highest in the U.S.

All those factors together may make Hawaii the state that's most suited to plug-in cars--and the state is eagerly embracing them.

Peter Rosegg, of the Hawaiian Electric Company, argues that the island chain is an ideal laboratory for broad-scale conversion to vehicles powered by grid electricity.

Highest rate of hand-raisers

And its citizens seem to be responding. Nissan says Hawaii had the highest per-capita rate of "hand-raisers," those who wanted information on its Leaf electric car.

Three local power companies--Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light Company serving Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island--already offer discounted rates for off-peak charging of plug-in cars.

And public charging stations are being installed at a fast clip. The first one went live more than two years ago, in January 2010, well before either the Chevrolet Volt or the Nissan Leaf arrived at dealers in December of that year.

2012 Hawaiian Teacher of the Year Gets Free Mitsubishi I

2012 Hawaiian Teacher of the Year Gets Free Mitsubishi I

The lineup of charging points includes a planned total of 130 networked stations on four islands to be operated by Better Place. That company is offering free charging throughout 2012 at its new stations.

Electric vehicles park free in many Hawaiian cities and towns, and as in California, eligible plug-in vehicles get access to its High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes with only a single occupant.

Ambitious energy goals

With 90 percent of its energy derived from oil delivered by sea, Hawaii has set ambitious goals: By 2030, it wants to cut overall energy usage in the state by 30 percent, and derive 40 percent of that energy from renewable sources.

The state is becoming something of a test-bed for clean energy technology, in fact, and the greater efficiency of electric cars will be an important contributor to achieving those goals.

GM has also used the state to test hydrogen fueling infrastructure for many of the same reasons. 

Energy analyst Pike Research expects plug-in cars to represent 6.3 percent of all vehicles sold in Hawaii just five years from now, a higher proportion than even California.

Mitsubishi i Delivery in Hawaii

Mitsubishi i Delivery in Hawaii

And to encourage just that, the state is offering a whopping $4,500 cash rebate tax credit for the purchase of an electric car, on top of the $7,500 Federal tax credit--though as in California, the available funds are limited.

Car companies are getting in on the act. Hawaii's teacher of the year was awarded a brand-new 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' electric car last fall. Mitsubishi, in fact, delivered the very first 2012 'i' sold at retail in the state in December.

Challenges: apartment buildings, car supply

Rosegg notes that challenges remain. Hawaii is a small and remote vehicle market, with just over 1 million residents, and he says it's been a struggle to get automakers to commit limited production of electric cars to the state.

More challenging over the long term is that many residents live in apartment buildings and other multi-family dwellings, meaning they don't have individual access to the private garages used for recharging by plug-in buyers in other states.

Paradise for plug-ins

But with temperatures in the 60s and 70s (ideal for electric car batteries), short travel distances, and pricey gasoline, Hawaii may offer paradise not only for 6 million visitors annually from around the world, but for electric vehicles as well.

And Rosegg notes that tourists will be able to rent electric vehicles in this ideal environment, perhaps giving many visitors their first-ever experience of driving an electric car. Some may return home as converts.

To hear more of Rosegg's thoughts, you can listen to a 23-minute podcast he prepared with advocacy group Plug-In America.


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