In the next two months, John Felder of Cayman Automotive, who introduced electric vehicles to much of the Caribbean, expects to ship the first electric cars to Cuba.
The initial vehicles are bound for Cayo Largo, a tourist island with no permanent residents, located 50 miles south of Havana and a 22-minute flight north of Grand Cayman. The Cuban government will put the new electric vehicles into service at the destination’s seven major hotels, moving visitors around the 32-square-mile island linked by a single paved road.
The five to 10 vehicles for this first project” will be shipped all at once to save on shipping costs,” Mr. Felder said. “The[y] will be low-speed electric vehicles, with a maximum speed [of] 25 miles per hour. The plan is to use this method of transportation to take tourists to and from the hotel and beaches.”
With 20 miles of pristine seashore, 34 dive sites and undisturbed forests and wildlife, the island draws thousands of visitors every year.
“The vehicles will be used mostly by tourists, but key government officials are also expected to use these vehicles while on island,” he said.
“The Cuban government would like Cayo Largo to be a fully eco-friendly tourist destination. They want to make it the first test market for electric vehicles,” Mr. Felder added.
If the test proves a success, Havana will expand the project, first to three small neighboring islands, then, ultimately, nationwide.
“They already pretty much know” it will succeed, he said, “but they want to do the small islands first,” testing tourist demand and the cars’ roadworthiness.
However, Havana is the “big prize” in the venture, he said. The country has about 37,000 miles of roads, both paved and unpaved, and 173,000 cars, at least 60,000 of them 1950s U.S. models. Those are outnumbered, however, by old Russian Ladas and other Eastern Bloc vehicles, including heavy trucks, South Korean Kias, French Peugeots, Chinese-built Geelys and a selection of Dutch buses.
Transtur, a nationwide car rental and bus transport agency, also “looks after purchasing of vehicles for the Cuban government,” Mr. Felder said. “They have 10,000 vehicles and between 40 percent and 50 percent need to be retired.”
The hope, of course, is that “eventually, they will get all electric vehicles,” he said, although “it’s difficult to say just how many vehicles will be purchased … once the project is off the ground.”
In any case, his agreement is that “Cayman Automotive will be the principal supplier of all electric vehicles for Cuba.
Mr. Felder said he didn’t anticipate any issues with the rollout of the electric vehicles in Cayo Largo. “We have completed our site inspections and have our action plans ready to implement. Of course, we always include ‘what if’ scenarios.”
Indeed, Mr. Felder is careful to cover his bets. While looking to “early next year” for the experiment on Cayo Largo – and the three associated islands – to spill over to Havana, Mr. Felder is poised, as exclusive dealer for China’s Jianghuai Automobile Co., to provide a range of gas- and diesel-powered heavy trucks.
JAC operates throughout Central and South America, has a presence in Haiti, and last July signed a $270 million deal with Venezuela for more than 5,000 heavy-duty trucks.
Deal signed last year
Mr. Felder signed his Havana deal in March 2014, after a call from Cuba’s Ministry of Industry.
“They called me, thanks to Google. That really is what happened. Cayman Automotive has had tons of press exposure in Cuba and has been in their newspapers,” he said.
That exposure is boosted by a strong Internet presence and sales of electric vehicles on eight Caribbean islands, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, where eight Felder-supplied cars operate on St. Thomas; in Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and St. Lucia; in Bermuda (nine); the Bahamas; the Turks and Caicos; Barbados; and, of course, Cayman, where 25 now run. Most recently, in late March, he delivered a U.S.-built Wheego to Little Cayman, the island’s first electric car.
How it all started
Cayman Automotive opened in 2005 and Mr. Felder imported the first electric cars in 2009. He fought for seven years to change local traffic laws to allow the vehicles on the roads. Today the company offers electric cars, trucks, vans, motor scooters and motorcycles from half-a-dozen manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
The Cuba deal, he said, took six months to complete, and now marks a new phase in his expansion.
Mr. Felder is reluctant to discuss some of the proprietary details of the electric-vehicle deal, saying only that the Cubans are looking at four electric-car models from the same manufacturer, and that each costs between $19,000 and $25,000.
He is also reluctant to discuss costs, saying that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” are at stake.
The question remains of charging the cars’ lithium-ion batteries. While the technology easily enables the cars’ 30-mile to 35-mile range, and electricity is still less expensive than imported oil, charging stations are critical to the project.
Cuba has long struggled with high oil prices, and has for years participated in Venezuela’s “Petrocaribe” discount program, started in 2005, selling oil to 13 Caribbean countries at discounts between 40 percent and 60 percent. The balance of the price, however, is still due, although financed at favorable interest rates over 25 years. But the recent collapse in oil prices has left Venezuela, already economically and politically troubled, grasping for cash. Cuba owes Caracas $14 billion.
“The Cuban government is very vulnerable right now … [it is] totally dependent on Venezuela for the majority of their oil,” Mr. Felder said. “Renewable energy is the answer and they have an action plan to reduce their dependence.”
The plan intimately involves solar energy, and Mr. Felder, in conjunction with Saskatchewan’s Sun Country Highway, his regional partner in charging stations, and which already owns 1,000 charging stations across Canada, will build – “one for now, and two stations, tops” – in Cayo Largo, then on the three smaller islands, followed, he hopes, by nationwide construction. Already, he owns eight stations on Grand Cayman – two of them by Sun Country – and says a serviceable operation can be created in a matter of hours at modest cost.
“There are a couple of types of charging stations,” he said: solar-assisted, with panels on a nearby rooftop, and one in which the panels form a roof, a canopy, over the station. A solar-assisted station costs $1,200, and, Mr. Felder said, “We will build a network. The panels used will be those that are manufactured in Cuba. This is part of our agreement.”
Like the vehicles, he said, “all the charge stations will be purchased by the Cuban government for cash.” Ultimately, he envisions “hundreds of charging stations” across the country. As he prepares to start shipments by mid-summer, Mr. Felder looks forward to a flurry of activity, boosted by increasing numbers of U.S. tourists.