Cargo Hauling At Calif. Ports Will Go Greener

The neighoring Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have some of the dirtiest air in a region that helped make smog famous. This week, a new all-electric, nonpolluting cargo hauler goes into service that may help make the nation's busiest freight center a little greener.

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One reason Southern California has long been notorious for its dirty air is the busy Port of Los Angeles and all those cargo trucks carrying away tons of goods. This week, a new truck that runs entirely on electricity goes into service at L.A.'s port. It's the first of its kind, and as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, part of a plan to turn the port green.

INA JAFFE: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa climbed up into the cab of the first production model of the all-electric green and white cargo hauler produced by the Balqon Corporation and surveyed the crowd assembled on the shop floor.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): If I'm driving it out, you all want to move out of the way when I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: The truck is capable of hauling a 60,000 pound shipping container, though it was hauling nothing at the moment. Still, the mayor was taking no chances.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: I was serious.

Unidentified Man: Get out of the way.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: If I were you, I'd move all the way out of the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of truck starting)

JAFFE: And off he rolled, just clearing the doorway on the truck's right side and guiding the vehicle safely into the parking lot.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: It's fitting that the mayor of Los Angeles should get the ceremonial first drive. Money from the Port of Los Angeles made this truck possible. Couple of years ago, Port Commission President David Freeman got together over lunch with the head of the Balqon Corporation. The company's founder, Balwinder Samra, was developing ways to make electric engines more powerful, and Freeman asked him: can you make one powerful enough to haul 60,000 pounds of cargo?

Mr. DAVID FREEMAN (Port Commission President): And he said, well, no problem. And I said, well, I know theoretically no problem, but can you actually build one? He says, well, sure. I said, well, why haven't you? And he said, well, nobody's asked me to. And he says it's going to take about a half a million dollars, which I don't have.

JAFFE: So the Port of Los Angeles and the regional air quality agency came up with the money. It was a big step up for Balwinder Samra and his associates, who'd been working out of his garage. With the seed money from the port he got a somewhat bigger space.

Mr. BALWINDER SAMRA (Founder, Balqon Corporation): Which would barely fit one of these trucks.

JAFFE: And got to work. The test model took five months. But they now have a much bigger space not far from the port.

Mr. SAMRA: We'll be doing about two trucks a week, and then eventually the production capacity of three a day.

JAFFE: When you think about ports, you think about ships, not trucks. But there are a lot of both, especially the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which receive 43 percent of the nation's imports. All that cargo has to go somewhere, so trucks haul it away or haul it short distances to trains or to storage yards. About 16,000 dirty diesel trucks make millions of those short trips in and around the ports every year. It's why nearby communities have been dubbed the Diesel Death Zone says L.A. City Councilmember Janice Hahn, who represents the area.

Councilwoman JANICE HAHN (L.A. City Council): A recent study actually attributed 2,400 premature deaths to cargo-related pollution. And the people around the port that live there, in Wilmington and San Pedro, they have higher risks of cancer, and the children actually have much higher risks of asthma and other lung diseases.

JAFFE: The Port of Los Angeles is anticipating a big payoff from its investment in the electric truck. The first dividend has already arrived in the form of 47 green technology jobs. But there's more, says Mayor Villaraigosa.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Every truck they sell outside of the Port of Los Angeles we'll get $1,000 for. We expect in the first three years to get more than a million dollars in royalties.

JAFFE: Which will be used to fund new projects to make the Port of Los Angeles cleaner and greener.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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