The city of Charlottesville employees you see driving silently across town aren’t coasting to save gas — they’re driving electric cars.

As part of a $500,000 grant from the Department of Energy, the city now owns three new Nissan Leafs purchased from Colonial Auto. This brings the city’s all-electric vehicle fleet to a total of seven. Approximately 50 other city vehicles are alternatively fueled.

“The reality is the city has been working on introducing green fleet initiatives for some time now,” said Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental administrator. “One of our first electric vehicle efforts was switching the city’s golf carts from gas to electric.”

Currently, Department of Public Works and Police employees are driving the new 100 percent electric Nissan Leafs.

“We took ownership of the cars in spring and we’re using them in a limited fashion,” Riddervold said.

Due to Charlottesville’s small size — approximately 10 square miles — city staff has found they can make multiple trips on a single charge.

“Practically, you charge the car once a week,” said Scott Hendrix, a public works project manager.

The project’s next step is to improve the city’s ability to charge the vehicles. These improvements will happen in two phases.

In the coming weeks, two intermediate Level II chargers will be added to the Police Garage and City Yard. Like a dryer or stove, Level II chargers provide 240 volts of electricity, and they can fully charge a vehicle’s battery in three to four hours.

Then, about a year later, the city will add two DC Fast Chargers to their electric vehicle infrastructure. This technology, which is used for commercial and industrial purposes, provides 480 volts of electricity and can reduce charge times to less than 30 minutes.

To acquire and install both the Level II and DC Fast chargers, city staff is working with Albemarle County-based Aker Wade Power Technologies.

“We save people money by reducing the total cost of ownership of something you drive,” said Owen Resh, Aker Wade’s vice president and general manager of electric vehicle products and technology. “The best part of this project is that the city is going to save money.”

While Aker Wade got its start fast-charging industrial fleets, such as forklifts, the company now has more than 12,000 Industrial DC Fast Chargers in North America, and Resh believes that this project will help both the local and national economies.

“Electric vehicles are a technology issue,” Resh said. “An important part of my job is making sure that the intellectual property stays in this country. We’re on the cutting edge of this market and it’s happening right here in Charlottesville, Virginia.”

A common argument against electric vehicles is that while gasoline expenditures might decrease, electricity expenditures will increase, but both Resh and the city noted that electric vehicles create a “snowball effect” of savings.

“When you start adding the efficiencies up,” said Resh, “it costs about one-fifth as much to run an electric vehicle as it does an internal-combustion car.”

“The cost of electricity is cheaper than gas right now,” said Hendrix. “And electric vehicles are simpler machines.”

“We’ve already seen savings from the hybrid-electric vehicles purely because they are more efficient,” Riddervold said. “And there’s a lot of liability associated with storing petroleum products.”

But Riddervold also added that while the city is excited to be on the front end of a state-of-the-art research and development project, the city’s transportation fleet has a variety of needs.

“Our fleet is everything from golf carts to big utility vehicles,” Riddervold said. “So there’s a lot of technology that makes a lot of sense for us.”

This public-private project is still developing. Once Aker Wade installs the DC Fast Chargers, the city plans to have a public unveiling.

Aker Wade plans to analyze the chargers’ use and provide a cost-savings study to the city in the spring of 2014.