Smith Electric: Converting Delivery Trucks to Battery Power for Fun and Profit

Last Updated Jul 8, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

President Obama is taking a political trip to Missouri this week, raising money for a tough Senate race in a state he narrowly lost in 2008. But Obama is also looking for some good "green jobs" publicity Thursday by visiting the not widely known Smith Electric Vehicles in Kansas City. Why there? Smith, currently an offshoot of a British company, converts larger delivery trucks to battery power, and it landed two Department of Energy grants ($10 and $22 million) to make that happen.

Smith was acquired by Britain's Tanfield Group Plc in 2004, a fact that could have subjected the Obama Administration to criticism for supporting foreign-flag operations. Tanfield partly owns the U.S. operation, which also has private investors. A watchdog investigative group recently made a splash by detailing the amount of clean-energy stimulus money ($849 million of $1.05 billion) that is going to non-U.S. wind and other green companies.

In an interesting twist, though, Smith Vehicles U.S. last March tendered an offer to Tanfield to buy the entire Smith operation (including British facilities and Tanfield's U.S. shares) for $55 million. CEO Bryan Hansel said in an interview that Smith is "in the process of completing the transaction," but he declined to say when it might be completed.

Smith says its 50 workers will shortly be increased to 100, which is hardly enough to single-handedly turn around the depressed state economy. But Obama is expected to tour Smith, and talk about the role of green companies in turning the economy around. "He's going to see first-hand the impact recovery dollars can have on a business," Hansel said.

The Smith trucks (built on a former diesel chassis made by Avia in the Czech Republic) could definitely catch on, because they're pioneering a market. The Smith Newton (built in Kansas City since last October) can carry 16,000 pounds, is the largest battery truck in the world, with a top speed of 50 mph and a range of 100 miles. In August, the company organized an event in Washington at which it handed the keys to a 510-vehicle-strong demonstration fleet of the $100,000 to $150,000 trucks to early customers AT&T, Coca-Cola, Staples, Frito-Lay (which has more than 20) and PG&E (north of 10).

Not many companies are building electric delivery vehicles (especially big ones), and a U.S. company that has that same market in mind, Indiana-based Bright Automotive, has had trouble funding the launch of its purpose-built delivery truck. But Bright hasn't set up manufacturing for its Idea truck yet, and according to Hansel the grants went to companies that could be in production in 12 months.

One major purpose of the DOE grant is to "incentivize" Smith customers, and the grant money helps that happen. According to Hansel, corporate customers will get a "service fee" for each year they keep the trucks on the road. That amounts to a subsidy against the purchase price, and what fleet manager wouldn't want that?


Photos: Smith Electric