In early 2020, the Los Angeles Fire Department announced it had ordered North America’s first electric fire truck, made by Austrian vehiclemaker Rosenbauer International AG with an estimated price tag of $1.2 million.
For that same price, a Holland-based advanced energy storage company can outfit 29 fire trucks with its patented power systems that can cut carbon emissions by 70 percent for each vehicle.
“If the goal is reduce carbon emissions in a wise, cost-effective, conservation way — the conservation of both capital and the environment — we can do so much more with less,” said Jack Johnson, founder and chief technology officer of Volta Power Systems LLC in Holland, which supplies OEMs in the RV, marine, trucking and other industries with energy storage systems to hybridize vehicle operation.
“If you’re trying to look cool and fancy and go with the sexy EV concept, you’re just going to spend a lot of money on a product that not many people can afford,” he added. “We focus on advanced energy technology where it makes the biggest bang for the buck.”
Spinning out of the prominent battery cluster of Holland, which features both LG Chem and Clarios LLC, Johnson founded Volta in 2014. He started the company to meet the energy needs of vehicles with duties that far exceeded simply driving from one place to another. This included everything from fire trucks and yachts to RVs, utility vehicles and limousines.
Volta’s systems allow these vehicles to perform their duties powered by electricity with no need to idle their engines, significantly cutting down on carbon emissions.
Johnson pointed to fire trucks as a prime candidate for this type of solution. The vehicles are produced in low quantities relative to traditional vehicles and customized to fit the needs of the buyer.
“There is no way you can scale these industries,” Johnson said. “You can’t use the drivetrain from a light duty passenger car to handle the work of a giant fire truck, so all of these small volume, speciality-built industrial vehicles have nowhere to go.”
Johnson said Volta Power Systems has been doubling its sales year-over-year, with 1,750 systems sold in 2021. A company that started with a staff of just Johnson has now ballooned to 47 employees.
In November, Volta doubled its production space to 30,000 square feet at its facility at 12550 Superior Court in Holland Township. Johnson said that the company is already making full use of the space and is now exploring options for an expansion.
While geographically sharing a cluster with heavy hitters like LG Chem can be beneficial in drawing talent, it also can be difficult to overcome the “small town assumption” from potential clients.
Overcoming that misconception is simple in concept — entice OEMs to try the system and see the ensuing results, he said.
Johnson highlighted Volta’s work with Birmingham, Ala.-based Storyteller Overland LLC as an example. Storyteller Overland manufactures adventure vans and teamed up with Volta to outfit their vans with off-grid capabilities, leading to a backlog of orders that stretches into 2024.
“I can give you the same type of story over and over,” Johnson said. “We help our customers win when advanced technology is required but often will be out of the reach of smaller businesses.”
Johnson said Volta’s growth has been anchored by opportunities in the RV industry, which has seen a spike in demand during the pandemic.
A market report by the RV Industry Association showed that RV makers shipped 600,240 units in wholesale shipments in 2021, which was a 39.5-percent jump from 2020’s 430,412 units. Towable RVs led this growth, up 39.5 percent over the previous year.
Winnebago Industries Inc., which Volta supplies, recently released its first quarter fiscal 2022 results showing $1.2 billion in revenue, a 45.7-percent jump from the same quarter last year.
Volta has teamed up with Elkhart, Ind.-based Grand Design Recreational Vehicles, which was purchased by Winnebago in 2016, to create off-the-grid towable RVs.
Volta’s systems will be integrated into Grand Design’s Momentum Fifth Wheel model, which is now available for pre-order.
Volta’s systems also have been put to use in its hometown. Last summer, the Holland Board of Public Works rolled out a utility truck produced by Austria’s Palfinger AG that’s outfitted with Volta’s advanced lithium-ion auxiliary power system. With the system, lineworkers operate from the truck nearly all day on a single charge without idling the vehicle.
The vehicle, which operates as BPW’s service truck frequently used for smaller repair jobs, operates silently and cuts down on carbon emissions. Holland BPW General Manager Dave Koster said that as both the city and its utility look to purchase vehicles, alternative fuels and electriciation will be two driving factors in an effort to green up its portfolio.
“I think there is an excitement around this advanced energy manufacturing segment in our community and having entities that are working on technologies that are important in allowing us to electrify more uses,” Koster said. “Certainly Holland’s focus and location as being seen as a hub for advanced energy is a nice thing when you’re a utility operating in that area.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been edited to correct the number of systems sold by Volta Power Systems in 2021.