As energy costs continue to rise and global warming looms ahead, more people are looking to go electric – that is, with electric cars, according to a recent New York Times article.

Despite some false starts in the past, the U.S. is gearing up to bring electric cars back into the fold, in part by putting $2.4 billion in Recovery Act grants into battery factories and research.

Meanwhile, American car companies are finally getting with the program. Next year, General Motors will introduce a Chevrolet that will go the first 40 miles on electricity alone. The auto dealer is keeping its fingers crossed for tens of thousands of sales in the 2012 model year.

“It’s going to be like the iPhone,” said Bruce Nilles, an energy and pollution expert at the Sierra Club. “It’s a very symbolic thing people can do to get off oil. I think people are underestimating how consumers are going to flock to an oil-free option.”

Based on Toyota Prius sales, he just may be right. According to the Times, there are almost one million Priuses on the road today in addition to the thousands of hybrids built by other manufacturers.

But despite the promising sales and inherent cool factor of owning a Prius, some barriers do exist. One of the biggest ones is cost. For example, the after-market kit to convert the Prius to plug-in goes for about $10,000, including installation – no small change in a recession. Even the new Chevy Volt is expected to cost around $35,000, which is a whole lot more than typical Chevrolet buyers are used to paying.

Luckily, the federal government and many states and localities are offering incentives to help assuage the steeper-than-usual costs. And, despite the heavy price tag, as gasoline costs continue to surge that just means that electric cars will continue to look all the more cost-effective.

Plus, many owners aren’t looking to save money so much as to make a positive impact on the environment.

Leslie J. Goldman, a lawyer who drives his plug-in Prius every day to work, told the Times that the benefit was more about values than about money.

“I take my briefcase out, I put the extension cord in and I feel very patriotic,” he said.

Of course, Goldman represents the company that makes the plug-in kit, but that’s beside the point, right? After all, cars produce around 0.56 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile, while electric vehicles emit about 0.3 pound per mile, or a little more than half as much as a gas-powered car.

And, as David B. Sandalow, assistant energy secretary for policy and international affairs, points out in Plug-In Vehicles: What Role for Washington?, with enough electric vehicles, “oil’s status as a strategic commodity would be threatened.” That's a good thing for a country that's way too dependent on others for oil.

But, of course, a electric car revolution assumes that the U.S. can get a smart grid in place in time to provide energy for all these shiny new vehicles, without blowing the grid.

Still, many are hopeful for the future.

“I think some day my grandchildren will say to my children, ‘You mean you couldn’t plug in cars when you were young — that’s so weird!’” said Sandalow.

Electric cars surge forward
Electric cars and hybrids are rising in popularity, but a few kinks persist.