Two groups often at odds with one another—the automotive industry and environmentalists—have been talking about electric vehicles (EVs) for nearly 30 years. Many people have questioned whether all the talk is, well, just talk. However, at long last, we have a definitive answer.

Yes, the EVs are coming. In fact, the vanguard of plug-in electrical vehicles are already on the road.

You may not have noticed unless it’s happening where you live. But the national media did take note in mid-September when Smith Electric Vehicles announced that Frito-Lay, Pepsi’s snack subsidiary, will be purchasing 176 of its Newtons with plans to convert the entire Frito-Lay fleet to the all-electric trucks during the next year. It has already started with chip distributors in Columbus, Ohio; New York; and Fort Worth, Texas.

Less than a month later, it was reported that office-supply giant Staples put in an order for 41 Newtons to be used for making deliveries from its stores in California, Missouri and Ohio. (Smith’s Newton trucks, designed for in-city stop-and-go driving with a top speed of 55 mph, can carry as much as 16,000 pounds and travel 50 to 120 miles on a single charge.)

Of course, the attention focused on electric urban delivery trucks is nothing compared to the fanfare erupting as the first mainstream electric cars from big-name manufacturers roll off the assembly lines and into consumers’ driveways. General Motors said Chevrolet dealers are now delivering the Volt, a plug-in with an auxiliary gas engine generator, in California, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Texas and the Washington, D.C., area before marketing them nationwide.

The Leaf by Nissan also hit the market in December, with initial deliveries in Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. The Leaf is the first all-electric car from a major carmaker in the modern era. Nissan says the Leaf can go about 100 miles before it needs to be recharged.

Ford plans to introduce the Electric Focus, an all-electric plug-in version of its popular compact sedan, in fall 2011. It will follow an electric version of Ford’s small commercial van, the Transit Connect. But, by the debut of that company’s EVs, electric cars with names such as Mitsubishi iMiEV, Fisker Karma, the Coda and Think City will also be tempting drivers, and buyers should be able to get their choice of size, style and price.

IDC Energy Insights, which provides research and consultation related to energy technology, forecasts that there will be more than 885,000 EVs sold in North America, almost 800,000 in Europe, and 2.7 million worldwide by 2015. But note that the accuracy of that prediction will depend on the EV-recharging infrastructure put in place before then. That’s where the opportunities for electrical contractors are.

The IDC forecast is also somewhat clouded by what is currently unknowable—whether electric vehicles will be a short-lived fad limited to big metropolitan areas or whether the automakers can increase their range sufficiently (and keep their prices within reason) to make EVs attractive on a wide-scale basis. And it’s anybody’s guess how long, and to what extent, the government will provide subsidies to encourage the purchase of EVs. That’s where the sense of urgency comes in.

As a recent entry in NECA’s blog at http://energysolutions.necanet.org advised: “Make hay while the sun shines. Educate yourself. Jump in on this trend. But be aware of the potential downside.”

NECA is working hard to help electrical contractors jump into this market while the window of opportunity is open. Providing information and advice through the Energy Solutions blog and this magazine is but one part of the effort.

NECA and its chapters are also teaching electrical contractors about EV opportunities through educational events. They were a hot topic at the 2010 NECA Show, for example. In fact, two brands of EV charging stations (from GE Energy and Schneider Electric) were honored as “Showstoppers” this year.

And, throughout the run-up to the mass-market rollout of EVs, NECA has been working with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the National Fire Protection Association, the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, General Motors, and the Center for Automotive Research to advance infrastructure readiness. The discussions are ongoing and NECA will soon publish a standard for installing and maintaining electric vehicle supply equipment as part of our series of National Electrical Installation Standards. In addition, NECA has provided meaningful support to General Motors regarding such issues as EV supply equipment installations and required safety inspections.

In other words, our association isn’t wasting any time in making inroads into the EV market. You shouldn’t, either!