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Talking Up The Idea Of An Electric Car

Thinking about getting rid of that gas-guzzler in your driveway? A lunch-hour display of electric vehicles at Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center Monday offered options - from small utility vehicles to luxury Teslas.

Tom Bodiford was showing off his yellow Smart Car, an electric two seater he uses to commute from Charlotte to Fort Mill every day.

"It's capable, as far as the EPA rating, of going 68 miles on a charge."

Bodiford calls himself an electric car "evangelist." He's a regular at events like this one, which is one of more than a hundred nationwide this week.

He charges the car overnight and says he's never had a problem with routine trips.

“This serves us 80 percent of the time, whatever our need might be, going to the grocery story to get bacon and eggs, this goes out of the driveway,” Bodiford said.

Sales of electric vehicles - or EVs - are growing, but still less than 1 percent of all car sales in the U.S. So for the past six years, car makers and EV fans have teamed up to promote the trend during National Drive Electric Week.

Steve Gucciardi is an environmental project coordinator for the City of Charlotte, and helped organize the Government Center event. The dozen vehicles on display included city utility vehicles, a full-size electric pickup from Duke Energy, and a couple of plug-in Nissan Leafs. There also were sleek Teslas, a BMW hybrid, and a Chevy Volt.

One of the main limitations on electric cars right now is the short range for most models. That Smart Car goes 68 miles on a charge, while others like the Nissan Leaf are rated just over 100 miles per charge. Tesla's Model S goes 265 miles.

Gucciardi helps lead a city program installing free charging stations around Charlotte, to make it easier for people to adopt electric vehicles. It also helps reduce auto emissions in a city where auto exhaust is a major factor in air quality.

“We've got them at park and rides. We've got them located in high density areas. We've got some downtown,” he said.

Other local governments and businesses are doing the same, to help spur adoption of electric cars. And the federal government offers a tax credit up to $7,500 if you buy an electric vehicle. About 115,000 were sold in the U.S. last year, and analysts say more than a half-million have been sold since the first modern plug-ins came on the market in 2010.

Critics note that electric vehicles are not emission-free – they need power from electric plants powered by coal and gas. Tesla owner Andrew Diamond has an answer for that.  

“First, I have solar panels on my house, and they're grid-tied, so basically I'm feeding energy to the grid and then I'm taking it back from the grid at night. So my net carbon footprint on that is zero, as far as the car goes,” he said.

Diamond admits many owners won’t go to that expense. But even without a solar boost, he says, an EV has one-quarter to one-half the "carbon footprint" of a gas powered car.  

Diamond is vice president of the Charlotte Electric Auto Association and owns two other plug-in vehicles.

“I think people think that they're the future, which they are. But I think people don't understand how much they are also the present,” he said.

He's helping to get the word out. But whether electric car sales expand may depend less on evangelists, and more on the price of gas - which is at its cheapest in years.

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.