Here we are, just two days before Earth Day, and Nissan is switching into high gear with its Nissan Leaf battery electric car. The company's challenge is to get the 115,000 “hand wavers” who registered their interest on the Internet to sign on the electronic line and pay a $99 reservation fee. That process starts today. Aren't you at least tempted?

According to Nissan’s Mark Perry, the goal is to have 25,000 customers lined up for the Leaf (which has a range of 100 miles on lithium-ion batteries) by December when the first go out the door. That’s a challenge, but probably doable. After all, we’ve got a lot of pent-up demand from talking about the coming electric vehicles for the last couple of years. The company is stoking that demand with a series of TV commercials and strategic YouTube postings (including this one):

Want a Leaf? Start the process by going to and registering. You won’t be able to glom onto one of the first 25,000 cars (those are going to the early hand-raisers) but you might be able to get one delivered by May. Once you’re registered and have paid the registration fee, Nissan will drop by your house and give you an estimate for putting in an EV charger. Expect it to cost about $2,000, but 50 percent of that is currently covered by a federal tax credit.

Did I mention that location matters? The early cars are going to five places where they’re EV-friendly and the utilities want to work with Nissan to make charging easier. California’s on the list, for instance, because you can get a $5,000 cash rebate from the state when you buy one there. The Leaf starts at $32,780, but when the $7,500 federal tax credit is applied, plus the $5k rebate, you can theoretically take a Leaf home in the Golden State for $20,280. That’s a bargain, and California is likely to be the biggest early adopter state.

Other early Leaf markets are Seattle, Phoenix, and the states of Oregon and Tennessee (where Nissan is based). By the end of 2011, the Leaf will be available nationally.

Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at Kelley Blue Book (famous for its used car price guides), thinks the Leaf will take off like a Ferrari, but it might also run out of gas. “There’s not a good deal of uncertainty about their selling the first 25,000 cars,” he said. “It’s not hard to believe that they’ll find that many environmentalists and technology-oriented customers in a country of 300 million. But what about after that? Is this a consumer product with legs, or will the demand dry up?”

Jeff Gearhart, research director at The Ecology Center in Michigan, has a remarkably similar viewpoint. “There’s clearly a hard-core niche of people who love EVs and will buy them,” he said. “Beyond that I’m not sure I see a market there, unless there’s an even greater escalation in fuel prices. Having said that, though, I think EVs are great and in the long term I think that’s how the market will move.”

The industry is definitely worried about the demand thing, and several executives have said in Senate testimony that they’d like the federal government to buy fleets of EVs to kick the thing off.

“We’ll get a good read on consumer demand starting this week,” Perry said. Early registrants are getting e-mail Tuesday asking them to pay up and convert to reservation status. Nissan will build cars to meet the emerging demand, in the U.S., Europe and Japan (where there are 7,000 to 8,000 registrations, mostly from fleet and municipal government fleets). “We don’t want to over-promise,” Perry said. And that’s maybe a good thing as the rubber finally hits the road.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

The Nissan Leaf lines up paying customers
Nissan is taking reservations for its Leaf battery car starting April 20, two days before Earth Day. Will the 115,000 "hand wavers" sign up, pay $99, and get in