Prepare to Slide into Electric Form of Transportation

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — “Fill ’er up” will soon take on a new meaning when the first wave of plug-in battery-powered cars hits dealership showrooms later this year.

To make sure consumers are charged about buying these new vehicles, a local spokesman for the nonprofit advocacy group Project Get Ready discussed the misconceptions, hurdles and benefits of electric car ownership with an engrossed audience recently gathered at a downtown restaurant.

“It’s a relatively new technology and it’s going to take a while to integrate into the mainstream,” said Al Dahlberg, an East Side resident who heads the Rhode Island effort to assimilate the vehicles onto local roadways.

For electric vehicles to become a permanent and profitable mass-produced form of transportation around the country, Dahlberg maintained they must represent at least 2 percent of all registered vehicles within five years. In Rhode Island, that translates to about 10,000 electric cars and trucks out of 210,000 on the road by 2015.

A desire to curb the nation’s addiction to — mostly imported — oil prompted Dahlberg to volunteer to pave the way for the zero-emission vehicles. “We use about 20 million barrels of oil a day but only produce 7 million,” he said. “A billion dollars a day goes abroad.”

Electrifying the national transportation system, he said, means all energy will be produced domestically, keeping more money and jobs in the local economy. Electric costs, which are fixed by regulators, also offer more financial stability compared to the unpredictable gas and diesel prices at the pump.

Sponsored by the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, Project Get Ready has rolled out a national information campaign across 20 cities in the United States and Canada to help consumers overcome any reluctance about buying and driving these “green” vehicles.

Providence joins Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Portland, Ore., and Toronto among other communities as partner cities in the Project Get Ready program.

The electric plug-ins are expected to start selling by the end of the year with the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sedans. Most other major auto manufacturers are expected to offer their own lines some time in 2011.

The Volt will retail for about $41,000; the Leaf for about $33,000. To attract buyers, both qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Dahlberg addressed several questions relating to electricity demand, cold weather, charging stations and noise. If the vehicles catch on, he said, innovation will address many of the drawbacks of going electric, such as their limited driving range, long recharging times and home electrical upgrades.

Electric cars are almost here and Dahlberg is optimistic they will stick around for the long haul. But, he warned, “If they remain a niche product, they will all go away.”

Either way, he said, one thing seems certain about the future of transportation: “The era of cheap oil is over.”