Electric Cars Gaining Energy in the V.I.

Artist's rendering of a charging Nissan. (Nissan USA photo)
Artist’s rendering of a charging Nissan. (Nissan USA photo)

When St. Thomian Adrien Austin founded Drive Green VI six years ago, he dreamed of igniting a revolution in how Virgin Islanders drove – or what they drove – and in a bid to accelerate the process, he put electric cars at the forefront of his venture.

“Nowhere in the world does a car depreciate or break down as fast as in the Virgin Islands,” said Austin. “The goal was to bring in a few new kinds of technology, do my own R&D out of my own pocket, figure out what works, try and push this technology, see what the market is receptive to.”

Since then, electric cars, vehicles that run purely on batteries as opposed to internal combustion engines, have multiplied on the roads of St. Thomas as demand continues to rise, driven by expensive per-gallon cost of gas in the territory and an increasing awareness of climate change pushing residents to pursue a neutral carbon footprint. Austin’s company has so far sold roughly 50 electric cars, and he estimates St. Thomas has about 150 in total.

But it was a bumpy road to normalizing the use of electric cars on island. About five years ago, Austin brought down five Wheegos, another type of electric car, and one Nissan Leaf. He wanted to explore how these vehicles would fare on the island’s terrains, find out if they had enough power-to-weight ratio to maneuver the hilly, tortuous roads, and identify which cars performed better than others. Austin said.

The Wheegos turned out to be a bust, Austin said, presenting a variety of problems, but the Nissan Leaf performed admirably, and being at the lower-cost end of the electric car spectrum, became a popular choice for locals.St. Thomas resident Renata Platenberg said she loves the Nissan Leaf she purchased in 2016.

“I am sick to my stomach about climate change, and I did not want to participate in the use of fossil fuels,” said Platenberg.

Platenberg’s environmentally-driven decision also yielded other benefits, including a nonexistent gas bill. Nissan Leaf owners can charge their cars in regular power outlets and get a full charge after eight hours; on fast chargers, charging time drops to one to two hours, according to Platenberg. She charges her vehicle every three days, and instead of a $200 monthly gas expense, Platenberg now pays $80 in added Water and Power Authority bills.

“There is no downside to this car at all. At all,” said Platenberg.

Corrine Van Rensselaer, owner of a 2015 Leaf, used to spend $130 a month on gas; now she pays an additional $20 a month on her WAPA bill. On top of the monthly fuel savings and lowering her carbon emissions, Van Rensselaer also said electric cars require less maintenance. The absence of an internal combustion engine eliminates the need for an oil change or maintenance of other engine-associated parts, like engine air filters.

“The maintenance is extremely low compared to an internal combustion engine,” said Van Rensselaer. “Probably the biggest maintenance thing is changing the tires and brakes, and if you use your air-conditioning, probably changing those filters.”

The car also passed Van Rensselaer’s safety test. Two months after she got her first Nissan Leaf, a 2014 model, she was hit head-on by another vehicle driven by a tourist driving on the wrong side of the road. She survived the crash and credits the car for the lack of serious or fatal injuries.

“It saved my life,” she said. “Just the way it’s strongly built with the structural frame around the cab. So I wasn’t badly hurt at all,” Van Rensselaer said.

The car was totaled but Van Rensselaer said she was so impressed by the car’s performance that she ended up buying another one, a 2015 model this time, and eventually purchased a 2013 for her husband.

Leaf owners also pushed back against the perception that electric cars are less powerful than their gas-powered counterparts. Tyler Smith bought his 2015 Nissan Leaf in December as part of his family’s effort to transition to a neutral carbon-footprint lifestyle, but even if the electric component is taken away from the Leaf, he said it’s still a great car.

“It’s got plenty of torque and power to get up any hill you want,” said Smith. “It’s a great car.”

The cost of purchasing an electric car is also on par with the cost of compacts or mid-level sedans of the same age, surprising buyers who thought the new technology would be cost-prohibitive. In 2017, Van Rensselaer purchased the 2013 Leaf from a friend for $5,000, and paid $14,000 for the 2015 model. In 2016, Platenberg purchased her Nissan Leaf, already three years old at the time, for $13,500.

One concern with purely electric cars is range anxiety; electric car drivers do not have the option of stopping at regular gas stations or bringing along a jerry jug of gas for long road trips. Electric car drivers in the Virgin islands, however, say range anxiety rarely applies on a small island where motorists drive short distances compared with stateside drivers. A full battery charge allows between 70 and 90 miles of driving distance, and with a regenerative brake system, drivers earn miles while going downhill and using their brakes.

“Here, with a 70-mile range, and if you charge the car every day, there is no way you’d get stuck,” said Platenberg.

Austin, however, said the car might not be for drivers who work as couriers or electricians, anyone whose jobs require extensive driving, due to the shorter range.

Smith, who has family of four, said he charges his car everyday as driving from downtown Charlotte Amalie to their Crown Mountain home can use as much as 15 percent of the battery charge. This means Smith’s family, like other Leaf users, needs to carefully plan their routes, taking into account uphill drives that cost a lot of energy and downhill drives that regenerate power.

“You kind of have to plan your route to get the maximum benefit or you don’t need to go uphill unnecessarily,” Smith said, who also keeps a gas-powered vehicle as a backup.

Newer Leaf models, however, also offer far greater range. Austin said he has six newer Leaf models on the way, each with a range of 150 miles.

Another worry that gave buyers pause is how to charge the car in the event that catastrophic hurricanes like Irma and Maria knock out the power grid for months. While some electric car owners also have solar panels and battery systems installed in their homes, the cars would take up to 10 kilowatt hours for a full charge, which would be unsustainable in extended power outages that would require the solar-fed batteries to also power basic home necessities. Smith said he explored the possibility of renting gas cars during extended power blackouts while others considered using gas-powered generators to charge the electric car batteries.

Several years ago, another concern was the lack of a Nissan Leaf dealer on the island, a need that Austin addressed early on. After calling the Nissan headquarters in Japan every few days for a year and a half, he said, he finally got a call back from Nissan in Puerto Rico, which offered him the Nissan dealership.

“I said I don’t have any interest in being a Nissan dealer. I want to just be able to support electric car technology so that people will buy one. I wouldn’t go buy one if I didn’t have someone to take it to when a funny light comes on,” Austin said.

“How do you get the marketplace to grow consume confidence if you don’t provide the backend tools for them to be able to rely on a professional?” he added.

Austin finally relented, agreeing to be the Nissan dealer on the island, but focused largely on getting Nissan Leafs into the territory. He preferred bringing in Leafs that were a few years old, which proved to be the more cost-effective option for his clients than brand new models that can easily cost $30,000. Austin also bore the cost of specialized tools and protective gear – about $50,000 in upfront costs – for his professional Leaf mechanics to make repairs safely on the electric car models.

Propelling the alternative transportation revolution that Austin envisioned continues to eat up funding, he said. He fuels his research on the best alternative energy vehicle in the Caribbean from the operation of a car rental and fleet management company separate from Drive Green VI. In addition to providing research funding, managing vehicles for other companies through the fleet management side of his operations also allows him to recommend alternative technology options to his clients based on their specific needs, he said.

“As more companies trust and lease from me, the more market penetration and power I have to suggest and to try these things,” Austin said.

Austin is trying to install car charging stations across the island for free, anticipating a greater demand in the near future. Two charging stations are already installed in Margaritaville, he said, and Bolongo Bay Hotel owners expressed an interest in having one on the premises. Austin said he is also in conversation with the Lockhart Group about installing chargers on their properties so lower-income individuals who have no ability to charge at home can charge their cars at work.

While most Nissan Leaf models on island have their limitations, newer models seem to be addressing them at a rapid pace, and more and more establishments in the Virgin Islands are opening up to the idea of helping make charging stations more accessible.

Van Rensselaer said she already sees a tremendous change looming in the consumer car industry.

“It is the wave of the future,” said Van Rensselaer. “I reckon by between 2030 and 2040, there will be massive switchover from internal combustion vehicles to electric vehicles all over the country and all over the world.”