In the suddenly zooming story of electric cars, it's the cars themselves that have tended to hog the spotlight.
Later this year, Nissan and GM will be the first to unveil their hyped first attempts at cars they hope will appeal to both America's inner motorist and its inner environmentalist: cars that get much or all of their fuel from electricity.
But others, including the White House, are devoting more attention to a larger, almost society-wide, task: preparing Americans to use electric cars in a way that actually cuts their electric bills and benefits the climate.
That's not a slam-dunk. Electric cars have been around for decades, but never in enough numbers that they would affect the grid, or require mass rollouts of charging equipment. The average driver knows nothing of when it's cheapest to charge his car battery, or how far he can drive on a single charge.
Ask these same drivers where the closest gas station is, or what's the quickest route to downtown, and they'll know.
"We've grown up all putting fuel nozzles in gasoline-fueled cars, we understand how to do that, we understand what the issues are," said Don Karner, CEO of eTec, a company focused on infrastructure for alternative vehicles. "Nobody probably ever sat us down and said, this is how you do this. We just kind of gained it by osmosis. Eventually, that'll happen with EVs."
How do you fill 'er up?
Karner's company and several dozen partners want to get the learning process started. Last October, the Energy Department gave it $100 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for a two-year study of exactly how Americans want to use electric cars, and how they can be nudged to use them in the cheapest, most environmentally sound manner.
The "EV Project" will have a total cost of $200 million and focus on 11 cities in five states: Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Tennessee. It will install just over 11,000 car chargers for the program's 4,700 vehicles, all of which are -- at present, Karner emphasized -- Nissan Leafs.
All the participants are volunteers who expressed interest in the Leaf, an all-electric sedan scheduled for release this year. They agreed to give up information about where they drive, where they charge, and how much it costs. The data will get wired to Idaho National Laboratory for use in future DOE reports.
This database may eventually form the backbone for how the government thinks about electric cars and their potential benefits for the climate.
Switching to electric-drive cars doesn't automatically wipe out oil use or carbon emissions. Plug-in hybrid cars can only travel so far on a charge; eventually, the gasoline engine kicks in. Environmental groups also point out that with a coal-dominated grid, plug-in hybrids would cause about as much greenhouse gas emissions as a regular hybrid car -- not the minuscule footprint they seek.
All-electric cars use no gas, but their carbon profiles depend on when they plug in. If people charge during the day, when electric load is highest, power companies may have to build peaking natural gas plants. If they charge at night, studies suggest, new power plants may not be needed: There's already enough generating capacity on today's grid. Alternatively, the cars could charge on wind power, which tends to pick up after dark.
Will 'smart' meters lead to intelligent choices?
The study will approach nearly every aspect of how electric cars will fit into a person's life. Electricity pricing, for example, could affect the charging issue: If smart meters help people notice that power's cheaper at night, they may choose to do it then.