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.

Then again, they may not: Few think about the time of day when plugging in their cell phones. Karner said the project will give participants different levels of information, to see just how much they need to switch to efficient habits.

Many of the study's findings will be used to push localities to consider the nitty-gritty of how they want electric transport to work.

For instance, Karner said, the Americans with Disabilities Act has no specific guidelines for electric-vehicle chargers, so states will end up interpreting the law. He said when the EV Project asks a local government how it should build 1,000 charging stations, that will force the issue.

Another issue: where to place charging stations, and what type?

A main concern with electric vehicles is "range anxiety," a driver's fear that when her car runs out of electrons, she's stranded. The EV Project will observe how far people drive and whether they prefer to charge at home, at work or in other public places.

Ted Bohn, an engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, a partner in the EV Project, said people in regular cars tend not to run their gas tanks to the last drop, since they know many places to fill up.

In Japan, he said, planners put quick-charge stations on the edge of town, but motorists went out of their way to use them because their location was well-known. "If I have the confidence that I'll never get stranded, I'll be more adventurous," Bohn said.

A half-hour stop for a quick charge?
As for charging speed, there's a trade-off involved: You can restore a battery quickly, but not without reducing the battery's overall performance.

Plug a 30 kilowatt-hour battery into an old-fashioned, 1,500-watt power outlet, Bohn said, and it would take 20 hours to top off. A beefier charger could do most of the job in less than a half-hour, but the battery couldn't handle as many of these charges -- not to mention that there isn't yet an accepted shape for the plug.

Bohn said most in the industry are targeting a balance, around three or four hours.

The eTec project isn't the only one trying to figure out these issues. Project Better Place, a company that proposes to market electric vehicles like cell phones and their batteries like cell phone plans, is beginning to install infrastructure in Israel and Denmark.

Better Place will emphasize home charging and expect most customers to plug in at night. Most chargers will take four to eight hours to refill the battery. They will function partly like "smart meters" by relaying information to utilities about electricity demand, and will also give drivers information on optimal travel routes and where to find other charge points.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500