By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Promoters of electric cars are hoping to entice a few of Orlando's 56 million annual visitors to rent one at the airport and plug in at strategically placed charging stations at tourist hotels, theme parks and the convention center.
The goal of Drive Electric Orlando, which officially kicked off on Thursday with 15 Nissan Leaf cars, is to encourage broader adoption of electric vehicles by providing visitors with what amounts to an extended test drive during their stay.
"The best way is to get someone behind the wheel to drive it," said Sam Ori, vice president of the Electrification Coalition, a not-for-profit group of business leaders interested in developing an electric transportation system.
Electric cars have been slow to catch on around the nation in part because of sparce supportive infrastructure such as charging stations in some areas as well as consumer concerns about cars' limited distances on a single charge and the wait times for recharging.
The Orlando initiative is the first in the nation to exclusively target tourists, according to Ashley White, spokeswoman for the Coalition, which sponsored the plan.
Orlando is one of the world's largest rental car markets, thanks to Walt Disney World, other major tourist attractions, and the Orange County Convention Center, which is United States' second-largest convention center and helps draw 10 million business travelers a year.
The initiative will start with 15 electric cars available through Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and charging stations at 26 hotels. Nissan Motor Co donated 30 fast chargers to be installed at key locations, including 480-volt chargers capable of recharging a car in 30 minutes.
All three major theme parks - Disney, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando - have committed to installing recharging stations, White said.
The city of Orlando in recent years installed 300 charging stations within 70 miles of the city's downtown core through a federal grant program designed to boost development of electric car infrastructure.
Those who choose to participate can pick up what White called "competitively priced" electric cars for as low as $30 a day, and get perks such as free GPS, which can locate the nearest charging stations in some rental vehicles, and free valet service and overnight charging at some hotels.
While several cities offer electric car sharing programs, green energy advocates say the Orlando project is unique in its effort to create a coordinated EV ecosystem for tourists.
"What Orlando is doing is a good step, but each one of these components has been tried before," said Chelsea Sexton, an independent electric car advocate in California who was featured in the documentary movie, "Who Killed the Electric Car?", about the demise of the electric car industry in the 1990s.
Car rental companies, hotels and even Disney in California, experimented with electric cars in the 1990s before they were phased out.
"The test will be if this effort has enough coordination between the different stake holders to create a different experience than the last time around," she said.
San Diego has an extensive and innovative point-to-point EV car sharing program, EVGo, according to Max Baumhefner with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.
BMW's DriveNow electric car sharing program in the San Francisco Bay Area also has locations at San Francisco airport and in various places in the city.
The Electrification Coalition also is behind Drive Electric Northern Colorado, launched in February to create a model electric vehicle community in the cities of Fort Collins and Loveland, including Colorado State University.
Coalition chairman Seifi Ghasemi, who is CEO of a chemical company Rockwood Holdings Inc, said weaning the country from oil is good for national security, the economy and the environment.
"Even if we convert 10 percent of them (drivers) it will go a long way. The important thing is just to get it started," Ghasemi said.
(Editing by David Adams and Ken Wills)