Running on sunshine

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By now, even the briefest summer visitor will have noticed that Waiheke has too much traffic for its roads and its public transport isn’t exactly a good fit either. This bursting-at-the-seams atmosphere is a phenomenon in small destinations that have become globally fashionable and the island’s frustration is high in the face of sclerotic city management and endemic procrastination.

The Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association reaches 70,000 members and its secretary general, Christina Bu was the guest of honour when a group of Waiheke residents committed themselves, late last year, to having Waiheke entirely free of fossil fuel transport within the next 12 years.  

By then, the founders of the advocacy group Electric Island Waiheke want every vehicle here running on renewable resource power and the island geared to make it work.

They say visitors probably won’t be allowed to bring their internal combustion engine vehicles to the island and passenger and vehicle ferries are likely to be electric and possibly hydrogen powered. 

It’s a vision but also an intention to continuously explore and empower renewable energy options for household vehicles, buses and ferries as well as locally generated solar capacity and affordability. The island already has about 86 electric vehicles among a population of less than 9000 and has one of the highest uptakes of EVs in the country.

It’s still fairly brave, given that 30,00 Norwegians, with admirable public policy  and funds to implement renewable energy transport, have paid a deposit for electric vehicles that won’t be ready for at least a year but as Bu said, local initiatives are key in getting this disruptive technology into production. 

Having spent days in media interviews and meetings with government ministers here, Christina Bu said it was reassuring to be out of the world of suits and talking at the level of community demand which is driving much of the progress to date, sometimes exponentially.

Shenzhen in China has fully electrified the city’s whole fleet of 16,000 buses. Taking the lead in South America, Chile’s Santiago has just bought 200 electric buses and on many fronts, electric buses are catching on faster than cars. She estimates that within a five to 10-year timeframe, no cities or communities will be buying new buses that are not electric. 

Electric vehicles in oil-rich Norway make economic sense to ordinary people. Their government subsidises and gives tax advantages that offset the high cost of manufacture of EV cars. 

“If you buy a big SUV, a Porsche Cayenne or something like that, you get a purchase tax and a high purchase tax. But if you choose to buy a Leaf or a Kona zero emission vehicle, you don’t get that tax. So these EVs, although they are globally still a lot more expensive to produce, in Norway they cost the same price.” As a result, 29 percent of new vehicles sold are fully electric, and a further 18 percent are plug in hybrids – nearly half of those sold.

Norway also has fully electric commuter ferries for its fjords and islands and even long-time global EV transport advocate Bu admits that it rather blew her mind when she found herself up in the sky in a little two-seater EV aeroplane recently. “If a plane can be electric, anything can be electric,” she said, still sounding a little shaken by the experience.

Norway’s national airport operator is now planning for all inland flights in Norway to be electric by 2040, and since roads in the mountainous country in the north and west are notoriously difficult, they should get electric planes by 2025. 

“This is moving a lot more rapidly than most people understand,” said Bu, with each innovation rapidly catching on as real-life workability drives production and allays long-standing fears.  

As an island with a lot of visitors, Waiheke could, like Norway, incentivise local solutions to help the transition as part of the big picture for visitors, making it easy to restrict non-renewable vehicles from ferries and providing light electric cars, buses and even just plain walking, she suggested.

“We do not want a car-based island and that also applies to tourists,” she said to the Waiheke group. “I think that, going forward, that’s probably a good trick to draw in visitors – because that also makes the island more nice.” 

As George Bernard Shaw elegantly observed a century ago, while the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself and “therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” 

It’s something that resonates with our island DNA. • Liz Waters

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