Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Port Tech LA Expo

By Mark Edward Nero

Although advancements have been made over the years in the operation of environmentally friendly port drayage trucks, one obstacle that has been difficult to overcome is the travel range of such rigs. Where diesel-fueled rigs can typically travel hundreds of miles before having to refuel, battery-powered and other zero-emission trucks generally have a top range of only about 100 miles.

But at this year’s PortTech Expo near the Port of Los Angeles, the head of one company said he’s confident that such limitations will fall by the wayside in the not-too-distant future.
“That 100 mile limit is going to go up,” Mike Simon, CEO of clean technology company TransPower confidently predicted. “In five years, it’s going to double; in 10 years, it’s going to triple.”

Simon was on hand during the conference to introduce two of his company’s latest achievements: a yard truck and yard tractor, both of which are Class 8, battery-operated vehicles. The heavy-duty drayage trucks were among the highlights of the conference, which took place Sept. 5 and 6 at the Doubletree Hotel in San Pedro.

The PortTech Expo, now in its third year, is hosted annually by the non-profit technology center PortTechLA. The organization was launched in 2008 through a partnership between the San Pedro and Wilmington chambers of commerce, in conjunction with the Port of LA.

Since its inception, the tech expo has each year attracted more than 20 sponsors, 50 exhibitors and 300 individuals, venture capitalists and community leaders. Among the primary sponsors of this year’s event were Siemens, TransPower, the Port of Los Angeles and US Hybrid Corp.
One of the heavy-duty industrial trucks revealed by TransPower at this year’s event – a Navistar International Pro-Star on-road tractor designed to haul loads up to 80,000 pounds – was originally manufactured with a diesel engine, but was retrofitted with all battery-electric drivetrains powered by lithium ion batteries.

It was funded in part by a $1 million research grant from the California Energy Commission’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology (ARFVT) program and $500,000 from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The truck’s advanced components and drive-train package were developed and paid for by TransPower, which is based in the northern San Diego County city of Poway.

The other industrial truck displayed was a Kalmar Ottawa off-road tractor that was funded by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The technology used in the truck was developed as a result of the success of the Navistar vehicle, according to TransPower.

Simon said he believes that in addition to the limited range issue, another obstacle for zero-emission trucks that will be overcome in the coming years is the relatively high production costs.
“Electric trucks are in their infancy,” he said. “There’s nowhere to go but down in terms of price.”
He said the main selling point of zero-emission port vehicles now is they save money over time.
“What we’re offering is a truck that costs a lot more now, but with the savings in fuel costs, you end up spending less in the long run,” Simon said. “That’s the basic business model.”

Although electric trucks cost about $300,000 to purchase upfront, owners can expect to pay only $100,000 in maintenance costs over the next 10 years, for a total of $400,000 over the span of a decade.

On the other hand, he said, diesel trucks may only cost $100,000 up front, but between maintenance and refueling costs, the expenditures can amount to about $500,000 over 10 years, $100,000 more than zero-emission trucks.

In other news, Simon said his company is also working on a battery-operated train car that could travel up to 50 miles, meaning it would be able to operate within the Los Angeles Basin without adding to the region’s already notorious problems and reputation as having some of the worst air quality in the US.

“These vehicles show how clean energy can help meet challenging performance demands while reducing pollution and creating jobs,” Carla Peterman, a member of the California Energy Commission, the state’s primary energy policy and planning agency, said. Peterman not only gave brief remarks during the unveiling of the electric trucks, but was also the conference’s keynote speaker.

“Reducing California’s dependence on petroleum is not easy,” she said during her lunchtime speech. “But it is necessary because this dependence makes the state extremely vulnerable to price volatility and environmental impacts.”

“Our common challenge, summed up by the port’s mantra – more cargo and cleaner air – is how to maintain and enhance the economic value of the ports while minimizing impacts to our environment and to ourselves,” Peterman said. “Overcoming this challenge requires significant investment by industry and government. Cleaner ship fuels, electrification of ships at dock and modernization of the port’s truck and rail fleet are critical.”

The conference represented the third consecutive year that hundreds of people in the maritime and clean technology industries converged in the Los Angeles port area for the expo. In addition to the unveiling of the electronic trucks and Peterman’s keynote speech, the event included an investment pitch competition and panel discussions on environmental technologies, financing clean technologies and labor opportunities that are enabled by new technologies.

“Industry and education need to form partnerships,” Amy Grat, CEO of the International Trade Education Program, or ITEP, said during the labor opportunities panel. “Connect the classroom to careers,” Grat said.

ITEP is an organization that helps guide students and schools in the poorer neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Long Beach, toward careers in the trade, transportation and logistics industries.
Another member of the labor panel, Michael Ponce of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63, a clerical division representing LA/Long Beach dockworkers, predicted that there would be a major shift in the number and types of jobs union members have on the docks over the next decade.

“I see a lot of changes coming,” he said, referring to shippers wanting to implement European-style systems of cargo movement at West Coast port terminals in the US. “It’s going to be hard for the longshoremen.”

“From what I’ve seen in Europe, I think we’re one or two generations behind. Instead of one-for-one (human-to-machine ratio), you have one (person) for six (pieces of equipment). I see that as a huge impact.”

The shift, he said, will also come in the form of most new union jobs being in the realm of machine repair and diagnostics.

“It’s going to have an impact, but it’ll take maybe two to 10 years to have a big impact,” he said, due to such technology having to be negotiated during upcoming labor negotiations.

During the financing technologies panel, representatives from three venture capital firms – California Capital Partners, Peate Ventures and Pan Pacific Capital – gave a roomful of technology company heads and other interested parties tips on the criteria they use to choose which projects to fund.

“We’re not looking for the second coming of Bill Gates right off the bat, we’re looking for potential,” Pan Pacific’s Joe Platnick said. “We’re also looking for people who have been through adversity (personally or professionally); that can be revealing.”

“If someone’s passionate (about their company or product),” that can help make up for other flaws,” John Peate of Peate Ventures said.

John Nelson of California Capitol Partners, however, warned of the creeping problem of debt.
Only one percent of ventures had ongoing debt in 1997, according to Nelson, but that number is expected to rise to 20 percent by 2015.

“One thing you want to think about is not raising money,” Peate said, saying that companies that can’t raise additional capital should have plans in place regarding how to proceed if they don’t receive infusions of capital. “When you think you can’t go any further, how much further can you go?” he said.