Meet the workhorse cousin of the Toyota Prius — a medium-duty truck running on a hybrid diesel-electric engine that could save distribution...

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Meet the workhorse cousin of the Toyota Prius — a medium-duty truck running on a hybrid diesel-electric engine that could save distribution and utility companies plenty of expensive fuel and be easier on the planet, too.

Kirkland-based Kenworth Truck, a subsidiary of Paccar, plans to begin full production of its T270 and T370 hybrid trucks in early September.

Like the increasingly popular hybrid cars, these vehicles come with an electric motor that assists the main engine during acceleration and can capture the energy produced from braking, storing it in a battery for later use.

Medium-duty trucks are the backbone of the distribution industry. They are used, mostly in city traffic, to deliver anything from furniture to beer, and about 39,000 are operating just in Washington state, according to Kenworth.

Kenworth chief engineer Mike Dozier said hybrids are ideally suited for such delivery fleets, because stop-and-go driving allows the electric motor to operate and recharge its batteries more frequently.

Hybrid motors can also vastly reduce the fuel consumption of trucks with accessories that rely on the engine for power.

An aerial truck equipped with a lift, such as those used by utilities to maintain power lines, can burn 2 gallons of diesel per hour while the engine idles, spewing pollution and noise, said Steve Van Sickle, assistant equipment supervisor with the King County Department of Transportation.

But the Kenworth hybrid truck the department has been trying for the past six months can power its equipment with the electric motor. What’s more, “it eliminates a lot of noise,” making it good for work in residential areas, Van Sickle said.

Businesses, particularly those with distribution fleets, are feeling the pinch of rising fuel prices — especially since the cost of diesel, which powers most U.S. trucks, has outpaced the cost of gasoline. Diesel recently topped $5 per gallon in some Seattle area stations.

Commercial trucks use 14 billion gallons of gasoline and 23 billion gallons of diesel annually, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. The high cost of transporting goods gets passed on to consumers in the form of more expensive merchandise.

The trucking fleet’s environmental cost is also large. Freight trucks accounted for 19 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions by the U.S. transportation sector, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Light-duty trucks, a category that includes SUVs, accounted for an additional 28 percent.

Mindful of increased environmental concerns among consumers and governments, companies such as big-box retailers are adopting strategies to reduce their carbon footprint, said Paccar Vice President Robert Christensen.

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises bought 120 of the initial, limited-production Kenworth hybrids for its distribution fleet and began deploying them in April.

Spokesman Fred Roselli said the trucks increased fuel efficiency by 32 percent while reducing emissions by 37 percent and adding luster to the company’s environmental reputation.

“It’s really a triple bottom line — good for the environment, good for the community and the people who live in it, and also good for the company,” Roselli said.

Seattle-based Dunn Lumber, a much smaller, family-run business, has been using a hybrid truck to deliver lumber in the metro area. “It’s been great,” said fleet manager Mark Geyer. “We’ll probably buy some more.”

With the latest version of the battery, the truck gets up to 10 miles a gallon, while a similar, diesel-only truck would get less than 6, Geyer said. At current diesel prices, the savings are impressive, especially since the company currently spends about $250,000 annually on fuel.

Like the Prius, the trucks’ dashboard is equipped with a color screen that indicates when the vehicle is running on electric, the current battery charge and what mileage the driver is getting out of the system. That allows drivers to look for the “sweet spot” that would guarantee maximum savings, said senior design engineer Josef Tarp.

Kenworth’s hybrid system, developed in partnership with components manufacturer Eaton, relies for power on lithium-ion batteries — the type also seen as most promising for electric cars like the Chevy Volt and Toyota’s upcoming plug-in Prius.

While car manufacturers struggle to make a battery small enough to fit in a passenger car, truck makers don’t have that problem, said Dozier. In Kenworth’s models, the battery hangs from the underside of the truck, making it easier to cool off, he said.

Corporate mandates for greener fleets, combined with higher fuel costs, have greatly strengthened the case for hybrid trucks, according to a report by Dan Kratz, truck-operations manager for GE Capital Solutions Services.

Besides Kenworth, companies like International Truck and Engine and Sterling Trucks are going into the hybrid business.

“Truck manufacturers have been listening to fleet operators, and are responding by increasing their production of medium and heavy-duty hybrids this year,” the report said.

Kenworth’s trucks have more than the hybrid engine in common with the yuppie Prius: They come at a premium.

A hybrid truck can cost $40,000 more than its more traditional peers, which can sell for around $60,000 for the chassis alone; final costs vary widely according to specifications.

But Kenworth says the trucks pay for that premium in four to five years. When used for deliveries, a hybrid truck can reduce fuel consumption by 30 percent; in its utility version, by 50 percent, said Dozier.

The typical truck consumes about 6,000 gallons of diesel a year, said Christensen. At $4.50 per gallon, savings could range from $8,100 to $13,500 per year.

In addition, buyers of the trucks can apply for federal tax credits of up to $12,000, depending on the model, the company said.

The company is studying how to apply the technology to heavy-duty trucks, the eighteen-wheelers that carry goods long distances at freeway speeds.

“This is just the start,” said Dozier.

Ángel González: 206-515-5644 or