South Carolina local governments are preparing to install 80 electric car charging stations in public spaces to coincide with the release of the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, the first of many electric cars scheduled to hit the market in 2011.

Plug-In Carolina, a nonprofit founded four years ago in Charleston by Jim Poch, is coordinating the effort with the help of two grants from the S.C. Energy Office totaling $480,000 and with support from utility companies, including SCE&G in the Midlands, Santee Cooper in the Lowcountry and Duke Energy in the Upstate.

Local governments in Columbia, Greenville, Charleston, Conway, Myrtle Beach, Spartanburg, Rock Hill and Union each plan to install the charging stations. Columbia will have 10 stations.

The charging stations will make the cars usable around town and across the state: If you drive to Greenville and hope to come back to Columbia, you might need to charge your car in Greenville.

"With these publicly accessible stations, we hope people will get over any concerns they might have that they will be stranded on the side of the road or in their parking spot because they were unable to recharge to get back home," said Erika Myers, manager for renewable energy programs with the S.C. Energy Office.

The first 40 charging stations will go online Dec. 8, marked by an event at the State House with state and local government officials. The remaining charging stations should be operating by January, Poch said.

"We believe we need to be ready before people start buying these vehicles so there's a comfort level for people who work in the downtown area or people who come to visit," said John Spade, Columbia's parking services director.

The electricity in Columbia, and most cities, will be free for now. That's because the cost of parking in city garages more than covers the cost of charging the car, given the current price of electricity. The state Energy Office estimates charging an electric car in South Carolina is the equivalent of paying between 25 cents and 50 cents per gallon for gasoline.

The grant money came from the 2009 federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus bill.

The first grant came through the federal Department of Energy's Clean Cities program. South Carolina received $4 million, of which $240,000 went to Plug In Carolina. The other $240,000 was a state energy program grant, which also came from stimulus funding.

Most local governments are putting the chargers in parking garages.

Rock Hill will install a charging station in the city's lone parking garage and one in Cherry Park, a 68-acre softball/baseball complex. Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility, will install charging stations at Coastal Carolina University, Horry-Georgetown Technical College and in Conway.

But Poch said the primary charging place for electric-car owners should be their driveways.

"To really maximize the environmental and economic benefits, you will want to charge at night when our nation has an abundant amount of off-peak electricity," Poch said. "I really see (public charging stations) as a compliment to what people use at home."