What comes first: the electric car or its charging station?

Delawareans have seen the future of transportation -- and it’s electrifying.

And while the trend toward alternative energy vehicles hasn’t been overwhelming -- just as animal-driven vehicles were slow to give way to the horseless carriage -- it definitely is happening.

Of the five categories of alternative fuel vehicles listed by the Environmental Protection Agency, two are becoming more common in the First State. There’s the hybrid, which uses electric power as well as a gasoline engine, and it’s cousin, an all-electric vehicle that relies strictly on electric power to get around and which uses no gasoline at all.

Both of these vehicles use electric storage batteries and can be recharged at more than 7,000 public charging stations across the country. Up until Aug. 28, the First State was home to 37 charging stations. That number ticked up the following day as Lewes activated two additional chargers within the town.

The idea of electric vehicles is a bit of a mystery to some, said Chevrolet of Dover Finance Manager Ryan Caulfield.

The franchise sells the hybrid Volt vehicle and the all-electric Bolt.

“The main question people have, honestly, is, what is it, what’s the benefit to them and why do they even exist against a gasoline-powered vehicle,” he said.

Many people ask about rebates and the environmental aspects, he added.

“Once they find out about the benefits of electric vehicles, they end up favoring them or at least they leave more educated about a vehicle like that,” Caulfield said.

The problem: limited range

At the end of 2016, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group calculated that purely gasoline-powered vehicles still made up an overwhelming number -- 96.4 percent -- of the 832,000 registered vehicles in Delaware.

Diesel-powered vehicles come in at just over 2 percent, while hybrid and electric vehicles account for barely 1.5 percent.

Plug-in electric vehicles, including the hybrids, are powered by battery packs recharged off the electric grid. Each model has a specific range, the distance it can travel before it needs to be plugged in for a recharge. All-electric vehicles only can travel within that range while hybrids can use their internal combustion engines once the battery is discharged.

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, while the electricity used in charging a vehicle still is produced by burning fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal or oil, electric or hybrid vehicles still are better for the environment.

The all-electric vehicles produce none of the emissions released by gasoline-powered transports.

EESI cites a study by the American Lung Association that estimates emissions from internal combustion engines are responsible for $37 billion annually in health and climate costs.

“The study concluded that if electric vehicles represent 65 percent of all cars on the road in 10 western and eastern states by 2050, those costs would drop by $21 billion,” according to the report.

Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Laura Bogus said there are 312 electric cars in the state; Bogus had no information on the number of hybrids since the DMV tracks them as gasoline-fueled vehicles.

However, the AAM trade group estimated there were 645 such vehicles in the state as of December 2016.

Rebates help encourage growth

The state recognized the growing trend toward alternate energy vehicles more than two years ago by establishing the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program, encouraging state residents and businesses to buy or lease these vehicles.

The program, which is in effect until June 2018, makes available $3,500 in rebates for new electric vehicles with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of less than $60,000. New hybrid vehicle owners or leasers were offered $1,500 in rebates.

As of early August, the state has disbursed 473 rebates for the purchase or lease of electric or hybrid vehicles, said Kathy Harris, who is in charge of DNREC’s Clean Transportation Program.

Some of those have gone to dealers who have rolled them into their leasing or financing programs, she said.

“It’s been an overwhelming success,” Harris said. “It far surpassed our goal of getting 100 a year, and we thought that would be pushing it. The fact that we hit 100 in a month surprised us.

“Delawareans are really embracing it,” she said.

To compliment the vehicle purchasing rebate program, the state also offered reimbursements for people to install recharging stations at their homes or businesses.

Residential customers would receive 50 percent of the installation cost in return, up to $500; commercial properties did better, receiving a rebate of 75 percent of the cost, up to $2,500. Budgeted at $50,000, that program ended in December 2016; by then DNREC had awarded 136 rebates in return for electric vehicle charging stations, Harris said.

At first, however, Harris’ staff wasn’t sure how the rebate programs would work.

“With electric vehicles, it’s a sort of chicken-and-the-egg problem,” she said. “If the infrastructure isn’t there, then people won’t want to buy the vehicles. But if they don’t buy the vehicles, then companies might be hesitant to buy the charging stations.

“When we developed the program, we wanted to cover both bases.”

Pop in, pop out

Taking advantage of Delaware’s rebate program provided the incentive for the Royal Farms convenience stores to become the first commercial firm in the state to install charging stations in conjunction with standard gasoline pumps.

“We recognize that there is growth in the electric vehicle industry,” noted Royal Farms spokesman Thomas E. Ruszin III. The company has installed recharging stations at five locales in Delaware, including one at its store on West Lebanon Road.

“We’ve built a culture of sustainability at Royal Farms and this was an area we felt would offer essentially what is a green fuel,” he said.

The five chargers were strategically located at stores handy to drivers traversing Delaware, Ruszin said.

“You want them spaced out with some consistency so drivers can pop in, charge up and pop out again,” he said.

Ruszin acknowledges stores such as Royal Farms typically are not places where people spend a lot of time, which is why all of its electric devices are of the type that can charge up a car in less than a half hour.

“We’d like the drivers to come into the store,” he said. “They can grab a cup of coffee and maybe a bite to eat inside while their car is charging up.”

Although he would not go into specifics, Ruszin said his company spent more than $100,000, before receiving the rebates, to install the stations at the five locales in Delaware. Those costs included upgrading the store’s utilities to handle the extra power load, he said.

Royal Farms charges between 15 cents and 29 cents a minute, with a minimum of $3.50 to charge up at its stations throughout Delaware, according to the plugshare.com website. Prices elsewhere range from no cost at all to about a $5.50 minimum.

Charging up at the office

Most recently, Harris’ office initiated its Workplace Charging Program, offering rebates to companies that install recharging stations on their premises.

DNREC is offering employers incentives to put in up to six stations, after which it will refund 75 percent of the costs, up to $5,000.

Installing these stations where drivers work is an easy way for companies to “go green,” Harris said.

“Vehicles are parked there up to eight hours a day, allowing employees to fully charge their vehicles and ensure they have enough battery range for their commute.”

This new program is available through June 2018, she said.

Such programs are almost bound to increase in demand as drivers consider alternatives to gasoline-powered cars and trucks. According to money.cnn.com, the idea of ditching fossil-fuel vehicles has resulted in Great Britain banning the sale of these vehicles after 2040. The British government is investing up to $1.8 billion toward achieving the goal of emission-free vehicles by 2050.

Other nations, including France, India, and Norway are following suit, noted the network, with China already accounting for more than 40 percent of electric cars sold worldwide.

But there still are tremendous gaps in the availability of charging stations within the United States.

According to the federal Department of Energy, 16,212 charging stations provide more than 44,100 charging outlets nationwide. Most are concentrated in populated areas along both coasts, with Florida having 876 charging stations and California boasting 3,858.

Alaska and North Dakota have six and seven stations, respectively.

However, it's true electric vehicles aren’t for everyone, at least not just yet. That should change once more charging stations become available and people become comfortable with charging their vehicles at home or at work, Caulfield said.

“There are limitations on a vehicle that’s electric, that it’s got a 200- to a 250-mile driving range,” he said. “That being said, their acceptance in the marketplace is significantly growing.”