Motor vehicle manufacturing is alive in Los Angeles and hiring at the assembly plant is under way.
That may seem like a statement from decades ago, when the county was home to major motor vehicle manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors.
But amid the recession and thousands of local manufacturing job losses, a small company in Harbor City is making electric trucks to replace diesel-powered big rigs, and jolting the job sector with 47 elusive "green-collar" positions.
Balqon Corp, founded by three engineers in 2005, recently opened an assembly plant in a 15,500-square-foot warehouse in Harbor City, a few miles from its first customer, the Port of Los Angeles.
"Right now is the perfect time for inventors to push the limit," said Chief Executive Balwinder Samra, a Balqon co-founder. "America has always pulled itself out of turmoil and ended up in a better place, and there's no better place to start than in Los Angeles with its talent."
Balqon designs and assembles heavy-duty, zero-emission electric trucks customized for transporting containers at ports, marine terminals, rail yards, warehouses, military bases and mail facilities.
It has found a demand for its vehicle as a result of efforts by the port to reduce pollution by radically cutting diesel emissions. The port and South Coast Air Quality Management District in 2007 offered Balqon $527,000 to develop and mass produce an electric truck powerful enough to haul cargo containers around the port area.
As part of the deal, Samra moved his company from Orange County to Harbor City and will pay a royalty of $1,000 to the port for every truck he sells that isn't used at the port.
"We wouldn't have been able to expand at first and move into this warehouse without the help in resources from the port," said Samra, who has raised $2.2 million in private capital.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa drove one of the trucks during the plant's opening ceremony a few weeks ago, drawing some publicity in the process.
A 46-year-old native of India, Samra has almost 20 years of experience in developing electric cars and buses, including a stint at Taylor-Dunn Manufacturing, an Anaheim maker of electric industrial vehicles and tow tractors.
About four years ago, Samra and two engineer friends started Balqon out of Samra's garage in Aliso Viejo, working at night and on weekends on a heavy-duty electric truck engine.
About the same time, Los Angeles port officials who were working on their Clean Air Action Plan to reduce emissions by 80 percent caught wind of Samra's work.
After reviewing a proposal by Balqon to develop an electric short-haul truck prototype, port officials approved the deal in March 2007. The port estimates that diesel trucks take 1.2 million trips annually to a nearby rail yard. If those trips were made with zero emission trucks, an estimated 35,605 tons of tailpipe emissions would be eliminated.
Prior to the agreement, Balqon couldn't afford to buy the parts to assemble the truck. But within a year of the deal, the prototype was built, tested for six months and the port signed up for 25 trucks.
Balqon's trucks are composed entirely of American-made parts shipped to the plant that would typically be used for a diesel truck, minus the engine. In its place, Balqon workers install a custom electric motor that can haul 100,000 pounds powered by two lead acid batteries attached to the truck's side.
The company has two short-haul, heavy-duty trucks: the Nautilus E30, which costs $208,500 and can haul cargo from the port to the rail yard, and the Nautilus E20, which costs $189,950 and only hauls cargo from ships to nearby lots, never leaving the port parking lots.
The E30 has a speed of up to 45 mph, and can travel up to 30 miles when hauling a fully loaded cargo container weighing 30 tons. The E20 can reach a speed of up to 25 mph and go up to 40 miles when hauling 30 tons. A downside: It usually takes about three hours to charge a truck.
Balqon uses battery chargers made by AeroVironment Inc., a Monrovia company expanding its alternative energy product development department that focuses on battery systems for electric vehicles.
"It's important to keep as many jobs here and show that we in America can make the best products in the world," Samra said.
Port officials said the electric trucks will be cost effective. Based on diesel fuel priced at $4.75 per gallon, a 60-mile trip would cost a diesel truck driver about $55, or 90 cents per mile. With a Balqon truck, electric charging costs would cost about $12 for the same 60-mile trip, or 20 cents per mile.
However, diesel costs less now. What's more, the cost of the electric trucks is almost double that of diesel trucks, which, if factored in, would dent the cost-effectiveness calculation.
Clean and quiet
The plant, tucked away in a mixed neighborhood of warehouses and townhomes, is relatively quiet and clean because most of the parts are premade and shipped to the plant for assembly. The only noise comes as the eight employees assemble the electric engines, test the batteries and attach the chassis to the bodies of trucks. Currently about 10 trucks in various assembly states dot the warehouse's interior.
Within the next month, Balqon hopes to hire 10 to 12 employees, with salaries between $30,000 and $42,000 a year, with a goal of 47 hires by fall. Right now, it has 14 full-time employees.
Gino DiCaro, a spokesman for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, a group representing 700 manufacturers, said Balqon is one of those rare examples where job creation is tied directly to efforts to clean up the environment, coined as green-collar jobs.
"Balqon is to be commended, but with so many regulations and taxes in place, it's only become more difficult to make California an attractive place for manufacturers," DiCaro said. "Solar panel companies are opting for other states to set up factories. We're going to end up losing jobs and having to buy environmentally friendly equipment from other states and even abroad to meet our own regulations."
Jerry Nickelsburg, a senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast, said that while it's true that traditional manufacturing jobs involving low-wage labor have left the area, the intellectual side of manufacturing hasn't.
"Automobile design is still strong in California with most brands having design centers here," Nickelsburg said. "That's the typical pattern of manufacturing: The low-wage manual labor jobs may leave to somewhere where mass production is cheaper, but the minds behind the products stay close to headquarters."
Samra recently took the company public without an initial public offering through a so-called reverse merger using the shell of an existing corporation. The company only trades over the counter, but there is a hope Balqon can access the public markets to raise capital.
Samra said he's negotiating with other ports and rail yards interested in Balqon's trucks while his company completes the port's order. He'd like to eventually build more than 10 percent or 2,000 of the local drayage truck fleet.
Since neither of Balqon's trucks can reach freeway speeds, these electric trucks won't be competing with diesel trucks at least until Balqon finds a battery powerful enough to make that happen.
"When we see that, we could expand," Samra said. "We're still dreaming."
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