A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Up until now, Virgin Islands players have been generally content to watch from the stands, as forces driving the automotive industry circle the track, searching for viable alternative fuels. Recently, however, the territory has begun to edge toward the field.
The V.I. Energy Office already has six hybrid vehicles in its fleet, and Director Karl Knight says the combination gas-and-electric cars work well. He’s ready to move to the next level.
“We have on order the first two all-electric vehicles for the Government of the Virgin Islands,” Knight said last week. “We wanted one with a good track record,” so are purchasing two Nissan Leaf cars. They should be delivered in about a month, he said.
Both cars will be assigned to the Department of Property and Procurement, one on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas. As a demonstration, the department will use the vehicles as staff cars for a year and the government will monitor their performance and their maintenance costs. The idea is to convince the purchasing arm of the government that EVs make sense for the government fleet.
That may take some doing. Skeptics argue that electric vehicles are not suitable for the territory, though Knight feels he can prove them wrong.
Federal and local incentive programs in the last few years have done little to encourage local car dealers to promote hybrids or EVs or to create a demand for them among buyers.
“We haven’t had any” sales of EVs, said Chris Matthews of Caribbean Auto Mart. The company doesn’t include any in its regular inventory. It can, however, special order one if a customer wants it. “The Chevy Volt would be the option.”
Matthews said he couldn’t advise a customer whether an EV would be practical in the territory, but he did question whether they have enough power for the hilly terrain. The Volt has just 96 horsepower. “That’s like a dirt bike,” he said.
As for fuel savings, with the unusually high cost of electricity from the V.I. Water and Power Authority, “It might cost you more to charge the thing than to put gas in it,” he said.
Even proponents don’t push fuel savings.
“Honestly if you’re just plugging into WAPA, it’s going to be a wash,” said Courtney Mayes, energy manager for the University of the Virgin Islands, adding that you may save a little if you have installed solar panels in your home and are part of the net metering system, getting electricity rebates from WAPA.
Knight agreed that, at current prices, the fuel cost of an electric vehicle vs. a gasoline-powered vehicle is about the same on St. Croix. But on St. Thomas, the balance is different; gas prices are higher than WAPA rates. And, he said, the difference is expected to widen in the next year or so as WAPA begins to use alternative fuel sources to generate electricity. WAPA rates are projected to come down, and gas prices, driven by the international oil market, are expected to go up.
Both Mayes and Knight think the EV and the hybrid are powerful enough for island roads.
“They’ll be fine making it up and down the hills,” said Mayes. They’ll pull gas on the way up but will be charging on the way down.
Knight is counting on the even torque of the EV to more than compensate for the lower horsepower.
“We are demonstrating what we believe to be true,” he said. “We find they handle hills very well … When I’m on St. Thomas, I drive a Prius and that’s not exactly a muscle car, and I fly up and down Raphune Hill.” A hybrid sold by Toyota, the Prius is rated at 134 horsepower.
The territory has one big advantage over stateside jurisdictions urging the use of electric vehicles. As both Mayes and Knight pointed out, many island drivers don’t often run their vehicles more than 10 miles at a time.
“I can do what I normally do on one charge,” Mayes said.
Current thinking is that EV drivers would be able to charge their vehicles at home. In the future, Knight said, there may be solar powered public charging stations available to drivers. There are some federal grants that may apply. There’s also the possibility of partnering with UVI.
Under an agreement it made a year ago with New Generation Power USVI to install a 3-megawatt photovoltaic system, or solar farm, UVI will not only be getting inexpensive electricity, it will also get two charging stations – one on the St. Croix campus and one on St. Thomas.
Mayes doesn’t expect the stations before the end of the year, if then, and it’s not clear yet whether it will be practical to offer them for public use, but she said that is an option under consideration.
Another option on the table, according to Knight, is the use of hybrids or EVs for public transportation. But that’s a consideration for sometime in the future, if and when the demonstration of the two government Leafs proves successful.
“I’m excited that we’re going to start a transition to alternative energy,” Knight said. “What we hope to do is to try to start to create that demand.”
Electric vehicles face many hurdles, not the least of which is making them competitive. As Mayes noted, car dealers will need to invest in parts, equipment and mechanics training if they are going to import EVs and hybrids in quantity. So they have to know the vehicles will sell.
Of course, she also noted, the motivation for developing the EVs wasn’t to save money. It was to save the environment.