Brennon Morioka: The former HART deputy director leads HECO’s efforts to expand use of electric vehicles

Published on September 15th 

Brennon Morioka, 48, newly the Hawaiian Electric Co. manager for electrification of transportation — dealing with electric vehicles of all kinds and the systems that link them to the power grid — has been on the learning curve a few times already.

Two degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, then a doctorate from the University of Hawaii, prepared him for a career in soils engineering, which he pursued.

Then there were six years at the state Department of Transportation, where he was director; that type of engineering was a switch. And the stretching continued as he transitioned into mass transit, with 4 1/2 years as deputy director for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

The timing of this job offer was opportune, he said.

“I was getting a little worn down because of the duration of time that I had been there…. I felt the same after six years at DOT,” he said. “It was probably just time.”

Morioka said he’s waiting just a bit to buy his first EV, when next year’s models with a longer range on a single battery charge come out. That’s important to the married father of three adolescents who need to be run to various activities.

Otherwise, Morioka’s time is fairly well consumed by his job, which includes gathering data on how people use EVs, when and where they need to recharge, and generally answering new questions. How much will EV users pay to recharge, as things normalize? Who will be buying the cars?

“A lot of this electrification of transportation stuff initially is a lot of behavioral science,” he said. “Seeing what motivates people to go out and buy an EV… how do we shape those charging habits to make them more beneficial to the grid?”

Question: Would you say the turn to EVs is part of the new business model for the utility that the Public Utilities Commission has been seeking?

Answer: Those are the kinds of things I think our strategy that we are supposed to submit in March to the PUC is meant to start exploring…. As you start to do technological advances, you have different and new opportunities, especially in the way that you can serve customers.

Are there business opportunities that HECO can participate in? Probably so. But do we also want to encourage the private sector to take advantage of those opportunities? Probably so.

This is going to be a very coordinated initiative….

Q: For those not won over by EVs, what do you think is their objection?

A: I think it’s a little bit of everything. Some people want to have the big cars; some want to have the trucks…. It’s still a price-point issue for a lot of people….

With battery technology improving, the range improving — the 2018 Leaf is going to be 150 miles, versus right now it’s a little over 100.

Q: A hundred works on Oahu and Kauai, but…?

A: It’s a problem on the Big Island. Because if you want to drive from Keaau to Kona, it’s a little over 100 miles. So the range becomes an issue.

But the Teslas, the Volts, the Bolt, they’re like 200 miles. In 2019 the Leaf will be a 200-mile battery, so that becomes a game-changer also. And with that, the price comes down, too….

Q: You are new to the utility sector. Can you say how your prior experiences in transportation serve as preparation for this job?

A: If Hawaii is to achieve the clean energy future we seek, the electricity and transportation sectors must interact in many ways.

I’m on a steep learning curve at the electric company, but having some understanding of transportation during my time at the state Department of Transportation, HART and working in the private sector helps, especially when having to strike that balance between government processes and interests with what the private sector can bring to the table to make initiatives move forward.

Q: Besides support for EVs, what other initiatives are on your job list?

A: Among other things, we are working on electrification of harbor and airport operations, supporting the state DOT, the City & County and others on an electric bus fleet, starting for high-density neighborhoods where quieter, no-emission vehicles would be a welcome replacement for the current diesel buses.

Also, working on mobile workplace charging that could enhance our grid by putting solar power to greater use during the day; and looking at ways to encourage fleet operators to adopt electric vehicles, including sedans, light trucks and delivery vehicles as Domino’s has done with electric bicycles in the downtown area.

Q: What is the plan for adding charging stations? How do you decide when and where to put them in?

A: The Hawaiian Electric Companies have a dozen fast-charging stations across our service territories and other companies have fast chargers (particularly on Maui) as well. Many Level Two chargers are also available in parking lots and garages, as well as in many people’s homes. We are seeking a dozen additional fast charger locations in places most useful for commuters, people who live in apartments and condos and visitors who will be driving electric rental vehicles. It’s important to make people feel comfortable driving an electric vehicle, that there’s a place for them to charge their car wherever they go on the island.

Q: Are there technological issues that might affect the rollout? Any sense, for example, that hydrogen fuel cells could overtake EV batteries?

A: The marketplace will ultimately decide what assortment of vehicles and personal mobility will comprise our future travel modes. For most vehicle types, plug-in battery electric vehicles still have the advantage that the electric grid already goes down virtually every street and into nearly every home and business.

The infrastructure and batter technology is further ahead for electric vehicles and the different kinds of models that dealers are introducing into the market is really starting to give consumers a wider variety of choice.

Q: What legislation might be needed to better enable EV infrastructure?

A: Electric vehicles, and the self-driving vehicles to come, are so new that many decisions must be made about how they fit a political, economic and social system that for a century has focused on the gasoline- fired internal combustion engine.

Fine-tuning and continuing existing incentives for potential EV consumers as well as for existing EV drivers is important. So is finding ways to encourage improved and expanded infrastructure for all aspects of transportation including EVs, car-sharing and car-pooling, as well as personal mobility such as bus and rail transit, bicycling and walking. All these forms must be made safe, seamless and interconnected to work for all.

Q: About your departure from HART: Would you acknowledge any internal loss of confidence in the rail enterprise? Any observations about its financial outlook now?

A: I am still a big fan and believer in rail transit for Honolulu. The Legislature recently provided a path forward for the City and for HART to complete the project. The mayor, City Council and everyone at HART are all committed to finishing the project all the way to Ala Moana.

There area lot of hard-working and experienced folks at HART and the board just recently hired a new executive director so I am very optimistic about the project’s future moving forward.

Q: As former state transportation director, do you have any thoughts about the lagging efforts to modernize harbors, airports, highways?

A: The need to update and maintain infrastructure is not unique to Hawaii; it’s the same across the country. Projects of any kind take time, especially if you want to include the public, develop the political will, adequately plan and secure the financial resources and properly address concerns for the culture and environment.

The people who work in state and county transportation departments (and the private sector) are well aware of the needs and doing their best to make improvements happen. I am a big fan of Director Ford Fuchigami and what he and his team are doing in all three major modes of transportation across the state.

Those improvements are coming, I am confident.