Going green isn’t cheap, and for many in the trucking industries the extra cost often has meant that the cleaner choice doesn’t get made.

That’s a situation California-based Calstart wants to end. The organization is dedicated to helping commercial trucking interests as well as air quality and public health regulators work cooperatively.

It’s a role that often puts the nonprofit in an awkward spot as mediator between two sets of antagonistic players — regulators attempting to enforce various legislative requirements and commercial interests threatened by the costs of complying with ever-strengthening clean air rules.

But companies in California, New York and Chicago have been able to take the greener path thanks to innovative, Calstart-backed government voucher programs that put cash upfront to help defray the immediate cost of acquiring clean-technology vehicles.

To its credit, Calstart is lauded by both sides in the often-contentious tug-of-war.

“They make it easier for us to do business,” said Matt Jarmuz, sales director for Odyne Systems, a Pewaukee, Wis., developer of hybrid-electric drive systems for medium- and heavy-duty work trucks.

“They play a critical role in where we see the heavy-duty truck fleet going,” said Jack Kitowski, head of the mobile source regulatory division of the California Air Resources Board.

Ondyne White Truck Red Vibrant tree

An Ondyne Truck. (Photo: Ondyne)

The consortium’s role as intermediary is just one of its functions.

John Boesel, Calstart’s president and chief executive, says he sees the 24-year-old organization growing to become a national catalyst to help grow the clean transport segment as fast as possible; to incubate and nurture technologies and well as policies.

Related: “A Green Measuring Stick for Truck Fleets”

To that end, Calstart over the years has changed from an advocacy group for electric cars to a private-public partnership reaching into all aspects of clean transportation. Trucking and transit now accounts for about two-thirds of the workload, said Bill Van Amburg, Calstart’s senior vice president and head of its heavy vehicle programs.

Calstart “is somewhat unique in its ability to tackle a lot of pieces of the puzzle,” said California regulator Kitowski. “Most can only do one thing.”

However, Calstart, he said, helps develop policy, tackles demonstration programs and provides incubator-type advice to startups.

It’s all part of the puzzle of transforming the fleet, Kitowski said. “They’re a kind of matchmaker.”

The organization got its start after the Cold War ended and the U.S. military was shrinking.

That sparked a massive contraction in California’s sprawling aerospace industry.

“We lost 200,000 aerospace jobs in Los Angeles County alone,” said Boesel, an environmental consultant and former legislative aide who joined Calstart shortly after its 1993 inception. He became Calstart’s president in 2001.

At the same time, California was pushing forward with its then-controversial zero-emissions vehicle mandate. The ZEV mandate is one of the regulatory results of a state law requiring dramatic improvements in California’s air quality, which despite major improvement is still the worst in the nation.

Calstart founder Lon E. Bell, a Caltech-trained engineer, electric car enthusiast and founder of Gentherm, believed a business incubator could help put former aerospace workers back to work designing and making electric vehicle components.

However, California air regulators, under automaker pressure, scaled back on the ZEV mandate’s requirements, and enthusiasm for electric cars shrank accordingly. Calstart began looking for other avenues and settled on the bus and truck sectors as a natural expansion of its clean transportation mission.

Bell, now retired, began Calstart with a consortium of 40 public and private backers, all in California. Today, the group has more than 150 member companies and organizations from throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada. In addition to its headquarters in Pasadena, it maintains offices in New York, Denver, and two Californian regions — the tech-heavy Silicon Valley and the heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

Calstart has 25 employees and an annual operating budget of about $6 million. It manages about $24 million in annual “pass through” funding from various grants and government programs used to finance a variety of technology development and demonstration projects as well as the California, New York and Chicago clean truck subsidy programs.

Corporate members include transportation giants such as UPS and FedEx, diesel engine manufacturer Cummins Inc., natural gas engine developer Westport Fuel Systems Inc., heavy equipment manufacturers John Deere and Caterpillar, and cleaner fuels specialists such as biofuels distributor Golden Gate Petroleum and biofuel developer Oberon Fuels.

One early achievement was the Calstart hybrid truck partnership, the High-Efficiency Truck Users Forum, launched in 2002. It is working on programs to increase truck efficiency, including connected and automated vehicle technologies and idling-reduction systems.

Calstart’s work with the core alternative powertrain and fuel systems put the organization in touch with myriad fleet operators “as we tried to learn what worked for them and what didn’t,” Van Amburg said.

It was work with the HTUF membership that led to Calstart’s backing of the three truck incentive programs it now manages. The first was launched in California in 2010 as the state’s air board met with industry players, including Calstart, to figure out the best way to get authorized state clean vehicle funding to the trucking industry.

Before that, most funds were distributed as tax credits or rebates that came after the purchase was made, Van Amburg said.

Fleet managers didn’t like that because they still had to budget for the full purchase price of new low-emissions, fuel-efficient vehicles that often cost tens of thousands of dollars more than their conventional counterparts. The rebates and credits often didn’t arrive for months after a purchase was made and couldn’t be used to reduce the cost of financing.

But California regulators adopted Calstart’s suggestion that the incentive funds be made available upfront in the form of a state voucher. That has made it easier for trucking companies to justify the purchase of new clean trucks for their fleets by effectively lowering the purchase price.

The California program is the largest of the three that Calstart now operates; it disburses vouchers ranging from $8,000 to $30,000 for low-emissions hybrid trucks and buses, and from $20,000 to $110,000 for zero-emissions trucks and buses. Since its start, the program has been used to help finance the purchase of more than 2,500 vehicles.

Calstart used the success of the California program — called the Hybrid Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Program, or HVIP — to work with state officials in New York and city officials in Chicago to start similar programs, New York Truck VIP and Drive Clean Chicago.

“It has meant more sales for us,” said Jarmuz, Odyne Systems’ sales director.

Calstart also works with businesses to help find grants and demonstration programs that can help them develop products to increase their markets.

“They are able to digest what’s going on all around the country, in all sorts of regulatory and business situations, and then provide us with the information,” said Bob Devine, director of advanced applications at BAE Systems Inc. The Virginia-based defense and commercial electronics systems developer is a Calstart member and holds a position on its board of directors.

Businesses often “see things through a pretty narrow slit, but they see the whole picture,” Devine said of Calstart.

For BAE Systems, “that has really borne fruit” in extending the company’s reach from hybrid bus power systems into zero-emissions electric drive systems, he said. BAE systems not only works in the transit segment, it has begun working with a major North American truck maker to develop a Class 8 electric drayage truck for a demonstration project pulled together by Calstart, Devine said.

“Lots of companies need help understanding market opportunities for their technologies, identifying marketplaces and finding demonstration programs,” Van Amburg said. “That’s what we help with.”