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Clean electric truck at ports sparks enthusiasm

June 26, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Michael Fluegal is a self-described "diesel big-rig driver at heart," but he never realized how irritating the noisy, smoke-belching monsters were until he climbed into the cab of the world's most powerful electric heavy-duty truck and turned on the ignition.

"The only thing you hear is a hum and rolling tires -- and there's zero emissions," said Fluegal, the designated driver of the 30-ton prototype vehicle that Port of Los Angeles authorities view as a forerunner of a fleet of electric trucks to serve terminals and rail yards.

Stepping on the accelerator and making a hard left turn into harbor traffic on a recent weekday, the husky 6-foot-4 port maintenance worker said, "I don't come home from work smelling like diesel gasoline after breathing the fumes all day."

Added Fluegal: "Tell me that ain't nice."

In January, Fluegal was assigned the task of putting the big white truck through its paces. So far, he has chalked up 360 miles on the odometer "at all speeds and under all conditions including climbing up and over bridges with a fully loaded 40-foot trailer."

"It performs as well as any other truck its size in the port," said Fluegal, 42, who has spent most of his working life within earshot of diesel-powered machinery of all kinds. "They say it can go 40 mph, but I got it up to 42 mph."

Port authorities believe electric trucks could substantially reduce emissions generated by an estimated 1.2 million diesel short-haul truck trips that are made each year between the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex and local warehouses and rail yards. If those trips were made by zero-emission electric trucks, port officials said, about 35,600 tons of tailpipe pollution would be eliminated annually.

The electric truck was developed by Santa Ana-based Balqon Corp. in a jointly funded effort led by the port and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Balqon has agreed to establish an electric truck assembly plant about three miles from the port, where cargo container traffic is expected to double by 2020.

Although electric truck tests are still underway, the port has already ordered 20 more of the vehicles at a cost of $208,000 each.

"The reason I'm so excited about this electric truck program -- other than the fact it was my idea -- is that the world has changed, man," said Los Angeles Harbor Commission President S. David Freeman. "With diesel fuel selling for nearly $5 a gallon, this is the cheapest truck on the road.

"We think it's going to sell like hotcakes once it's mass produced. The fuel costs are less than an equivalent dollar a gallon, and when idling, they are not spewing pollution or guzzling fuel."

The electric truck, which takes about three hours to charge, has a range of about 30 miles while pulling a 60,000-pound cargo container, and about 60 miles empty. Although that distance may not sound useful, much of freight hauling within the port complex is from terminals to nearby train yards.

It costs about 20 cents a mile to operate, or about four to nine times less than a diesel truck, depending on fluctuating fuel costs and operating conditions.

Fluegal acknowledged that the experimental machine had generated mixed reviews from fellow port truck drivers.

"I get a little ribbing from old-timers who insist there's nothing like a good-old-fashioned diesel engine to get the job done," he said. "Tell you what, though. Putting more diesel pigs on the road isn't going to do anybody any good."


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