Puget Sound is poised to become one of the key markets for the initial wave of mass-marketed electric cars, in part because of plans to begin building a network of more than 2,000 charging stations throughout the region.

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After years of hype, it looks like the mass-produced, all-electric car is really on its way.

Puget Sound is poised to become one of the key markets for the initial wave of electric cars, in part because of plans to begin building next year a network of more than 2,000 charging stations throughout the region.

Funded by part of a $100 million federal Department of Energy (DOE) economic-stimulus grant, the charging stations are to the electric car what the cellphone-tower network was to the cellphone. Just as the phones needed towers to make them functional, the network of charging stations will make it practical to own a car that does not use gas.

By December 2010, drivers in our area should be able to buy mass-produced, plug-in electrics that create no emissions and run for pennies a mile.

“It’s going to blow people’s doors off how fast this transition is going to happen,” predicted U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, who took a spin around the Microsoft campus Friday in an all-electric Ford Focus.

As part of the DOE grant, the Puget Sound area has been promised 1,000 Nissan LEAF all-electric cars, which will be sold here beginning in December 2010.

But that’s only the start.

Because of the charging network, the Seattle area will be one of the major markets for other brands of electric cars, said Steve Marshall, a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, a Seattle-based transportation think tank. Ford, for example, plans to bring an electric commercial van to the area in 2010, one that will run for about 3 cents a mile and is designed for small-business owners and package-delivery fleets.

The electric Focus will hit the market in 2011, as will the Chevy Volt, a car that can drive the first 40 miles on electricity before a gasoline-powered engine kicks in, driving a generator that provides electric power beyond 40 miles.

Inslee predicts that within a decade, a significant portion of the American car fleet will be made up of electric cars, and “we’re trying to make Washington the epicenter of this revolution,” he said.

The car companies know it. “Washington is a lot more aggressive and more hep on this than any part of the country,” said David Berdish, manager of sustainable business development for Ford Motor Co.

Meeting at Microsoft

On Friday, state and federal officials and business leaders gathered at the Microsoft campus for a Cascadia-sponsored conference called “Beyond Oil.” They talked about building sustainable communities and ensuring the electrical grid could handle the power draw if thousands of people all tried to recharge their cars at the same time.

Outside, a half-dozen Tesla roadsters — all-electric sports cars that cost about $100,000 — were lined up in the parking area. But it was the somewhat homely Ford Focus, which arrived on a flatbed truck after an overnight trip from San Francisco, that attracted the buzz, in part because it’s price is expected to be within the reach of the average family when it comes to market in 2011.

The Seattle area is expected to be a leader in electric cars for a couple of reasons.

For one, we get most of our power from relatively cheap, carbon-neutral sources. Statewide, hydroelectric accounts for about 66 percent of our energy; for Seattle City Light, it accounts for about 90 percent, according to city and state statistics.

We also have a mild climate, with summers that don’t require power-sucking air conditioning and winters that don’t involve battery-killing temperature plunges.

And already we’re crazy about hybrids, cars like the Prius that top gas mileage. Washington ranks fourth among states in the number of hybrids per 1,000 people. About 50 of the Tesla roadsters have been sold here.

Finally, government officials are working to streamline the process of getting car-charging plugs installed. The state Legislature this year passed a law encouraging state and locals to develop the infrastructure to accommodate electric cars.

The $100 million DOE grant is being shared by five other areas around the country: Portland, Salem, Corvallis and Eugene, Ore.; San Diego, Calif.; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; and Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn.

Because the Portland area is also getting grant money, it’s likely that the Interstate 5 corridor between Seattle and Portland will have a string of charging stations, making it possible to go between the two major cities on nothing but electricity, said Colin Read of Ecotality, the parent company of Electric Transportation Engineering (eTec), which will build the charging stations.

Powered by Metro

King County Metro is getting ready for the change. It has installed 39 110-volt public-charging stations at park-and-ride lots throughout the area, said Ron Posthuma, assistant director for Metro’s Office of Regional Transportation Planning.

Next year, as part of the DOE grant, Metro will put in more powerful, 240-volt charging stations at park-and-ride lots. That’s the standard voltage needed to charge an all-electric car, requiring a plug that resembles the one you use for your clothes dryer.

For legions of electric-car buffs in the Seattle area, the future can’t come fast enough. A number of drivers have bought extra battery kits to turn regular hybrids into plug-in electric hybrids, which can dramatically increase the car’s miles per gallon if driven carefully.

Toyota Prius driver Stephen Jensen, who lives on the Sammamish Plateau, installed a second battery in his 2004 Prius, allowing him to drive the car at higher speeds on all-electric power. He plugs it in at a Metro park-and-ride lot while he takes the bus to work in Seattle. If he drives carefully, he can average 90 to 95 miles a gallon.

Charging your car at a park-and-ride is still in its infancy. Just four drivers tap into them regularly, and the county is not yet asking users to pay. Posthuma said the charging stations won’t remain free in the future, although how to charge for them is another puzzle to be worked out.

Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center, has seen electric cars go from a quirky passion shared by some Northwest drivers to a mainstream interest.

Six years ago, during the institute’s first conference on transportation, technology and energy, the parking lot was full of funny-looking cars, Agnew said, and the institute could barely find enough people to fill a one-day agenda.

This year, Ford came courting. The lot was full of electric cars. And the institute had to turn participants away.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com