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Idea Log: The little engine (idle alternative company) that could

Idea Log: The little engine (idle alternative company) that could

The theme of this series is that the best ideas are simple—but ideas are one thing and execution is another. And five years after taking over the remnants of a bankruptcy, the succeeding IdleAir management team is carving out a profitable niche in truck stop electrification.

Count me among the skeptics—the doubters, the disinterested—who took one look at the original IdleAire overhead steel truss and yellow dropdown ductwork, all tucked away in a dark corner of a truck stop parking lot and thought: ‘not gonna happen.’

Yet the concept was an undeniably attractive elevator pitch.

Flash back to early 20-oughts: Diesel costs were creeping higher, and trucking companies and owner-operators could do the math on how much money was literally disappearing into the air as truck engines idled overnight.

Likewise, communities near trucking centers never cared for the 24/7 clatter of diesel engines and, most importantly, the EPA was measuring various diesel-related emissions—and penalizing areas where air quality standards were sub-standard.

Suddenly governments near distribution hubs or major Interstate intersections developed truck idle restrictions. In response, it seemed like any lawnmower engine maker thought they could make a small generator, and truck shows were jammed with APU vendors.

IdleAire thought they had a better idea, and so did investors public and private. In its heyday, the company regularly announced the latest awards, millions and millions of dollars in grants from federal and state agencies, along with its rapid expansion projects and the vast amounts of emissions the concept would keep from the atmosphere.

The board even featured a former Clinton White House chief of staff (who was also a very successful business executive with a truck equipment background) that would surely help in raising more investment.

The catch was IdleAire decided it needed to build out the network before the drivers would come. And that made some sense: To develop the habit, and become comfortable with the service, trucker-customers would need to have the IdleAire option reliably available, not just here and there for drivers to try on a whim or use when they happened to come across one.

Success, after all, breeds success. A parking lot full of trucks hooked up to IdleAire would be the best advertisement.

Alas, obviously empty parking spots in an otherwise crowded truck stop didn’t make for a ringing endorsement. I imagine it also made for some uncomfortable discussions between tired truckers and IdleAire attendants over exactly who was going to make whom leave that otherwise unused space.

And as anyone who have ever spent any time around a truck stop knows, everything on the parking lot is subject to serious wear and tear if not outright destruction.

The red ink gushed and creditors came calling.

IdleAir window unit

Yet, a couple of iterations along, the resurrected “IdleAir” is hanging in there, and Convoy Solutions recently marked five years managing the concept after picking up the pieces from a bankruptcy settlement.

The more modest, more cautious IdleAir has a found a profitable niche, even though its former slick and well hyped predecessor piled up big time losses.

“We’ve found ways that IdleAir doesn’t work, ways that IdleAir does work, and ways that it works even better,” says CEO Ethan Garber.

Specifically, he referred to the successful installation of facilities at fleet terminals. The company most recently completed construction of the first of several planned dedicated IdleAir terminals with Covenant Transport at their headquarters and national training facility in Chattanooga, TN.

They’re also launching a second solar-powered facility, with funding help from energy companies, this one at a Flying J in South Carolina.

With approximately 6,000 pre-existing parking spaces that the company has held on to for expansion capacity, IdleAir also has refurbished and redeployed about 600 older units that have been in storage. They’ve also doubled the number locations over the past five years, growing from the 20 sites they retained in 2010 to 40.

And IdleAir is now an approved vendor for about 700 fleets, but Garber estimates that about 70% of its 45,000 registered customer are owner-operators.

And while the company still hasn’t turned a profit, largely due to some of those legacy locations, it does now have profitable facilities, new partnerships and technologies, and a new round of investment, Garber tells me.

“We’ve resuscitated a business that had promise by implementing a leaner overhead structure,” Garber says. “We’ve been able to shift not just our hardware but our capital resources to companies that see transforming the transportation landscape with a dose of electrification as being a virtuous part of the long-term evolution of the highways.”

Time will tell, but it’s starting to look like IdleAir’s time finally might be right.

TAGS: Fuel News
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