Wittmar Engineering and Construction Inc.

Location: Signal Hill
Founded: 2002
Core Business: Making a portable generator to provide power to cruise and cargo ships while in dock
Employees in 2006: 6
Employees in 2007: 4*
Revenues in 2006: $500,000
Goal: To place at least 40 portable generators at ports throughout California
Driving Force: Shipping companies' need for a cheaper and faster way to hook up ships to shore-side electric power to limit emissions from diesel engines
* 17 employees after merger with Oakland-based Clean Air Logics is completed during the fourth quarter


When most cargo and cruise ships dock at port today, they become veritable pollution machines as diesel engines must run constantly to power refrigerated containers on cargo ships and kitchens, laundry rooms and other functions on cruise ships.


A typical cargo vessel uses nearly 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel during a two-day stay, throwing nearly 90,000 pounds of carbon dioxide and nearly 1,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide into the local atmosphere, along with a brew of other nasty chemicals.


With so much pollution spewing into the air, the state's ports have come under increasing pressure to reduce diesel emissions from ships at dock. The main method that has emerged is to turn off a ship's auxiliary diesel engine and run the ship on electric power a process called "cold-ironing."


Up until now, the only source of this electric power has been from the local utility grid. But getting enough power to the dockside can be a very expensive proposition over $100 million at some ports. Retrofitting cargo and cruise ship vessels that run on different voltages and frequencies to accommodate landside power can also cost shipping companies up to $2 million per vessel.


Enter Wittmar Engineering & Construction Inc., a small Signal Hill company founded five years ago by oil industry veteran Eric Whitten and electrical contractor Dana Markle. They have come up with a portable generator that can power vessels at dock for a fraction of the cost of traditional cold-ironing, technology that can be quickly applied rather than waiting years for these expensive conversions.


But whether Wittmar's technology will be widely used depends in large part on the outcome of an intense, behind-the-scenes battle now being waged in Sacramento over regulations governing the conversion of ships at dock to electric power. (See accompanying story on page 1.)


Such concerns were far from the minds of Whitten and Markle when they first came up with the idea for the portable generator. The pair originally met through their daughters' sailing class and decided to collaborate on a way to provide onsite-generated electrical power to oilfields. They came up with a portable container that housed a generator that ran on natural gas pumped from the oil fields. Demand for these generators surged after the state's 2000-01 power crisis threatened continuity of operations at many oil fields.


Four years ago, Whitten attended a meeting of South Coast Air Quality Management District officials and learned for the first time about cold-ironing proposals for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.


"We thought, 'Why can't we take our portable oil field generator and adapt it so that it could power a ship at dock?'" Whitten said. Such a portable generator would save tens of millions of dollars for ports that wouldn't have to bring utility power grids to the docks and millions of dollars for shipping companies that wouldn't have to go through expensive retrofits.


The beauty of the system was that it used largely off-the-shelf generating technology, which helped keep costs down, Markle said. Essentially, the system consists of a generator housed in a 40-foot container unit on wheels, with cables to hook up to a ship. The generator is fueled by liquefied natural gas.


"It's a whole different business model for cold-ironing," said George Cunningham, editor of the Cunningham Report, a weekly newsletter for the trade and transportation community.


But there were difficulties, chief among them, coming up with a way to connect to ships that run on different voltages and frequencies, just as a traveler has to bring a voltage adapter to connect electrical devices to power outlets in different countries. To address this problem, Whitten and Markle developed a dual frequency and multi-voltage hookup device that could "step up" or "step down" the current to the correct frequency and voltage, and applied for a patent.


They began approaching various shipping companies, terminal operators and port officials to gauge interest in the technology, only to be told to come back when the patent was ready. In the meantime, Wittmar was still reaping some income ($500,000 in 2006) from a number of oil field generators operating up and down the state, a business Markle said Wittmar wants to transition away from.


Finally, in mid-2006, Whitten and Markle received the patent approval. They went back to the Port of Los Angeles the largest port in the state, and one that is under tremendous environmental and community pressure to reduce emissions. Port officials were cautious in their reception, saying they had concerns about whether Wittmar's device could produce enough juice to power huge cruise and cargo ships. They wanted to see test results.


At that same presentation were executives with American President Lines, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines Group.


"We were impressed with the potential pollution reductions," said Brian Constable, chief operating officer with APL's Maritime unit. Constable said APL had some initial concerns about where the Wittmar device would be hooked up, but the firm ultimately agreed to participate in a test of the technology at the Port of Oakland on one of its ships, the APL China. The test, closely monitored by state and local air pollution control officials as well as the port itself, was conducted this past July and was largely deemed a success.


But APL's Constable said two significant problems emerged. The first was that a single Wittmar generating device was insufficient to power the entire ship. The second problem was that the transformer used by the Wittmar generator became too hot, meaning that cooling devices will have to be installed.


Constable said that these problems would have to be resolved and several regulatory approvals obtained before the shipping line would consider using Wittmar's generator on a regular basis.


The test results were greeted much more enthusiastically by Port of Oakland officials, who are looking for ways to avoid spending upwards of $150 million to bring the Pacific Gas & Electric grid down to the docks. The port contributed $200,000 towards the cost of the test.


Wittmar still has a long way to go before its generators become commonplace at port docks. Besides getting regulatory approval to use the technology, a major challenge is finding enough private investment to scale up production. Markle said that at least 40 generators would be needed to service ships at all California ports. Nonetheless, Cunningham said that the potential for huge cost savings would be a powerful driver. "The shipping companies don't want to plug into shore side power because it costs $1 million or more to retrofit ships. They would much rather use something like Wittmar's technology."

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