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There was a time when spotting an electric vehicle on a public street was almost as challenging as finding a needle in a haystack.

This no longer is the case today because thousands of EVs are being purchased annually by a combination of people drawn to their uniqueness and environmental benefits, and those who were enticed into dealerships by federal tax incentives.

Deep discounts and rebates offered by vehicle manufacturers also help.

InsideEVs, which covers electric vehicle news, reports 116,099 electric vehicles were purchased nationally in 2015, which was down from 2014 sales of 122,438. In 2012, 52,607 electric vehicles were purchased in the U.S. and then the number jumped to 97,507 in 2013.

Through the end of July, Inside EVs reported 77,834 electric vehicles were sold in the U.S., up from 63,298 sold through the end of July 2015.

Steve Jackson of Stoughton was skeptical of electric vehicles initially before deciding to get a Nissan Leaf last year. Now he’s a fan.

“I was going for the total environmental benefit of it,” Jackson said.

He also owns a Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle, which averaged more than 50 mpg, but now he prefers driving his Leaf.

“There is zero exhaust, the handling is fantastic and it’s just a joy to drive,” Jackson said.

There could be more Nissan Leaf drivers joining Jackson on Dane County roads in the coming weeks.

Zimbrick Eastside Nissan and Rosen Nissan, both in Madison, are offering discounts totaling $8,231 and zero percent financing for up to 72 months to qualified buyers who purchase a 2016 Nissan Leaf, which starts at $29,010.

The discount is available through Sept. 30.

Also promoting the special Nissan Leaf offer are Madison Gas and Electric and Wisconsin Clean Cities.

Lorrie Lisek, executive director of Wisconsin Clean Cities, said similar promotions for the Leaf were successful in Colorado and Minnesota.

In addition to dealership and Nissan financing discounts, buyers also are eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

“Nissan is a member of our coalition, so they approached us about doing a similar initiative in Wisconsin,” Lisek said. “MGE also is a member and they spoke to us about doing some education and outreach about workplace charging programs for these vehicles, so things just came together.”

Lisek said Wisconsin Clean Cities’s role with the Leaf promotion is to help educate the public about the incentive on a zero-emission vehicle, which fits with her group’s mission of encouraging the use of alternative fuels and technologies.

This too is where MGE wants to do its part.

“We are partnering with Wisconsin Clean Cities to promote the (Leaf) incentive,” said Steve Schultz, MGE spokesman.

Introduction of more electric vehicle models, improved battery technology allowing for farther travel and a growing network of fast-charging stations are among the factors helping to increase consumer interest.

Scott Ericson, sales manager at Zimbrick Eastside Nissan, said common reasons buyers are drawn to electric vehicles include the environmental and public health benefits. He’s optimistic the incentive will increase awareness of electric vehicles.

“Technology always is associated with higher costs,” Ericson said. “We are hoping to change that notion through awareness.”

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Jay Cole, editor-in-chief of InsideEVs, said growing interest and sales mostly are driven by regulation and incentives.

“Realistically in 2011, who wanted to turn in their gas-powered mid-size car or SUV that did the job just fine for a 75-85 mile range all-electric car like the Leaf?” Cole said. Incentives and regulations requiring fleet purchases to include a certain number of electric vehicles laid the groundwork that would help with future sales.

Federal requirements to lower emissions also are helping to push for improved technologies, which may help to drive down costs and improve the range of future electric vehicles.

“What everyone wants, even if they don’t know it, is a 300-mile electric car for $25,000, or a 250-mile electric SUV or truck for $35,000 that’s cheap to operate, quiet and luxurious to drive and fast to accelerate but that sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight,” Cole said. “It takes a lot of technology advancement, investment and a lot of scale and infrastructure behind it.”

Cole said the first five years of incentives and increasing regulation in the U.S. have brought the cost of the entry level all-electric cars into the $20,000-range with the ability to travel up to 110 miles.

“So EV sales are going up, they have to, unless all the world regulatory bodies decide emissions aren’t really such a bad thing, which seems unlikely,” he said.

With that in mind, businesses also have been doing their part to meet customer demands for electric vehicle charging stations.

The Alternative Fuels Data Center of the U.S. Department of Energy reports today there are 14,001 public electric vehicle charging stations around the country, including 225 in Wisconsin.

MGE has a network of 27 public charging stations around Madison. Some are located in public parking lots and other high-traffic locations.

Whether MGE installs more depends on demand.

Schultz said MGE continues to evaluate the need for public charging stations and where that need is most critical.

“We also are working with a number of area businesses on potential workplace charging options for their employees’ convenience,” he said.

Alliant just announced a rebate program for employers who install charging stations on site.

Alliant Energy has 13 charging stations at its Madison headquarters, with five available for public use.

Alliant has focused on making electric vehicle charging more convenient for its customers to do at home, said Annemarie Newman, communications program manager at Alliant.

Alliant launched a consumer rebate program in April, which provides its customers with up to $500 to install a level two charging station in their home, which can charge an electric car’s battery more rapidly than a standard outlet.

Available mobile apps and websites make it easy for electric vehicle owners to locate charging stations, especially if planning to take a long trip.

Jackson said he’s still reluctant to travel too far from home in his electric vehicle but that could change because of the improving charging station network.

Jackson works for Alliant in Madison and recharges his vehicle at work.

“Going a longer distance is possible because the infrastructure is getting there,” he said.

“If I knew the infrastructure was there, I’d be more inclined to take the Leaf on a longer trip.”

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