Trash Trucks Go Electric With Help From Tesla Co-Founder

Ian Wright calls his range-extending generator a "game-changer" for the automotive industry.

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Older trucks can get an internal makeover, allowing them to run mostly on electricity with a generator for backup.

As sports cars, delivery trucks, and even buses go electric, one vehicle has kept rumbling along on fossil fuel: the good old garbage truck.

That's about to change. This summer, 17 trash trucks in Northern California will be powered by electricity, with an onboard diesel generator for backup. They won't look any different—the new engines are going into existing chassis—but they will be quieter and cleaner.

The trucks will be among the first to use a system from Tesla co-founder Ian Wright. He says his new company, Silicon Valley-based Wrightspeed, is the first to extend the range of an electric engine by using a highly efficient turbine generator—a smaller version of what's found in jet engines and power plants.

Wright says his new generator, announced Monday, is 30 percent more efficient than existing ones. He rolled out the new system just as Tesla was touting its expansion into the home battery business. (See five reasons that news was a big deal.)

Wright, who left Tesla in 2004 and has said he was never a "true believer" in its mission, wanted to focus on making a product for businesses that would save them fuel without requiring a big leap in battery technology or shift in fueling stations.

Retrofitting his company’s trucks rather than buying new ones appealed to Lou Ratto, COO of Ratto Group, which owns the California garbage trucks.

"Being a recycler, that is kind of like the ultimate recycling," he says. He estimates he’ll recoup the retrofit costs—$125,00 to $175,000 per truck—via fuel and maintenance savings within three years.

Ratto's trucks aren't the first to go electric. Last September, the city of Chicago debuted what it called the "first and only all-electric garbage truck in North America," noting it would save 56 gallons of fuel per week. Motiv Power Systems provided the truck, and if all goes well, it will build 19 more for the city.

A typical garbage truck gets only 2.8 miles per gallon, according to Wright: "It's so much stop and go that they're very inefficient." He says trucks using his system will be able to travel 30 percent farther.

Wrightspeed also sells its powertrain to FedEx for its medium-duty delivery trucks. "We've got more demand than we can cope with," he says.

Because his generator can run on multiple fuels including biodiesel, kerosene, and natural gas, Wright says it could eventually be used for stationary backup power independent of trucks. "There will be a lot of applications in the developing world," he says. "It's really quite a game changer."

First, though, his system has to stand up to the ultimate test: garbage collectors.

"Garbage men are hard on equipment," Ratto says. "The proof will be in the pudding when we start putting this thing through its paces."

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Christina Nunez and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.

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