The Port of Los Angeles has been in and out of bed with Harbor City startup Balqon Corp. for five years, paying the company $6.4 million for electric trucks that never worked.

And now the port is back for more.

This time around, it’s spending $630,000 in port money and federal grants to give Balqon a third try at getting the trucks right after another company tasked with improving them fell behind schedule.

It’s just the latest step in the port’s stumbling effort to promote zero-emission technology and get something back from its investment in Balqon. Early indications are that the trucks might finally do what they’re supposed to: move cargo containers around port terminals for a full work shift without recharging midway through.

“The original trucks, they couldn’t last a full shift,” said Kevin Maggay, air quality supervisor at the port. “(Now) we’re getting three to four times the hours of use out of them.”

Bob Curry, chief executive of Long Beach trucking firm California Cartage Co., which has been testing the latest Balqon trucks since August, agreed the trucks are doing better.

“My guys tell me they hold a charge for a full shift. And they’re being tested pretty intensely,” Curry said. “The only big complaint I ever heard is that they drive rough, but that’s probably the only gripe.”

That’s a sea change from the first two iterations of the yard tractors, which proved so useless that California Cartage and other companies didn’t want to use them and the port ultimately parked them in a maintenance yard.

The port’s relationship with Balqon goes back to 2007, when the port and the South Coast Air Quality Management District funded a $527,000 prototype battery-powered truck. The following year, the port ordered 25 trucks in a $5.8 million deal that also moved Balqon’s operations from Aliso Viejo to Harbor City.

But the lead-acid batteries on those trucks ran out of power after just a few hours. In 2009, the port gave Balqon $400,000 in grant funding to develop and install lithium-ion batteries. But testing in 2010 showed the new batteries also wore out quickly.

Second supplier

After that second failed round of testing, the port brought in El Segundo’s Vision Motor Corp. to extend the trucks’ battery life by installing hydrogen fuel cells. The port planned to pay for the upgrades with a federal grant.

Vision, another startup, was scheduled to deliver retrofitted trucks in October, but Chief Executive Martin Schuermann said his company had problems integrating its fuel-cell control software with Balqon’s battery-charging system.

Vision’s trucks, like Balqon’s, are powered by an electric motor fueled by batteries. But Vision uses a power-generating hydrogen fuel cell to constantly charge batteries on the go, giving the trucks more range. Balqon’s batteries are meant to be charged while the trucks are parked.

“They were never designed to actually be charged while operating, which is what we do. It’s quite an undertaking,” Schuermann said.

Maggay, the port air quality manager, said he believed Vision could have delivered eventually, but the federal grant money going to the company had to be spent by June 30. By January, port officials started talking to Vision about ending the project and going back to Balqon, which in the meantime had developed a third battery system – this time on its own dime.

With several months of testing showing the batteries could last up to 12 hours, harbor commissioners last week voted to back out of the Vision deal and instead give Balqon the federal grant money to install the new battery system on six trucks.

In actuality, though, Balqon will never see the $622,000 in federal grants, since it owes the port about $1.2 million for an initial order of 25 trucks later cut to 15 due to the battery problems. The port is asking the Department of Energy permission to simply reduce the company’s debt to the port to about $530,000.

Balqon Chief Executive Balwinder Samra did not return calls for comment.

The port already paid Vision $262,000 and might seek to recover that money or put it to use toward other projects with the company, according to port documents.

Schuermann said he is not concerned. Vision has other contracts with the port, including one to build a hydrogen-powered truck that will pull a mobile educational trailer highlighting the port’s green initiatives.

“We have a good working relationship with the port. I’m sure we’ll find a way to put the money that was allocated in this contract to good work,” he said.

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