A DRAB PARKING GARAGE across the street from a McDonald’s is an odd place to contemplate the potential of human ingenuity. But on a rainy spring day, George Beard unplugs a power cord connecting a white Toyota RAV4 to the wall, throws the SUV into reverse, and, in total eerie silence, we back into the possible future of transportation—and potentially Oregon’s economy—taking care not to hit any concrete pillars.

The 59-year-old former Oracle executive has become the electric-vehicle guru at Portland State University, which maintains a mini fleet of four electric-powered RAV4s. At eight years old, Beard’s RAV is not particularly futuristic, but this all-battery ride exists, basically, to convince people not to be scared of cars powered by the local grid rather than Saudi sheiks or disaster-prone Gulf oil rigs.

“Our primary objective with these vehicles is to give people firsthand experience,” Beard says. “And they invariably discover that, hey, it ain’t no big thing.”

For now. Beard, PSU, the city, the state, regional businesses, and fans of polar icecaps hope EVs, as they’re called, become a very big thing indeed. The long-range EV dream is a carbon-free renewable grid to plug into every night (albeit, the grid Beard’s plugging into is supported in part by the coal-incinerating Boardman power plant) and a national infrastructure with recharging stations every 100 miles or so. No small task.

Whether EVs turn out to be the new paradigm or the new Betamax, Portland and Oregon are at the vanguard. This spring, Oregon became one of five states involved in a $98 million stimulus-funded project to install hundreds of EV charging stations in the state and monitor users’ driving habits. Not coincidentally, Portland is among the launch markets for both Nissan’s cute new all-electric Leaf and Toyota’s plug-in version of the iconic Prius hybrid. And Portland State will essentially act as the global carmakers’ local research arm, assessing the performance of the new products.