Wrightspeed retrofits trucks with electric powertrains. A California garbage company will soon test its technology in an effort to save money. (Wrightspeed)

“Maintenance nightmare.”

That’s how Lou Ratto, chief operating officer of a waste and recycling company in Sonoma County, Calif., describes the challenge of keeping his garbage trucks compliant with the state’s air quality standards.

He’s seen maintenance costs for his older trucks rise 30 percent as he pays to clean the filters now required for the diesel engines. So a couple years ago he began exploring alternatives to diesel-powered trucks. Ratto looked at natural-gas options and hydraulic propulsion systems, but concluded they were either too expensive or didn’t fit the demands of his business.

“We’re garbage guys. We’re inherently dirty, but we’re problem solvers. We don’t want to be polluters,” Ratto told me.

He’s since found what could prove to be an economical and eco-friendly solution to his problems. In August the Ratto Group will receive a garbage truck with a battery-powered electric motor, and a turbine generator that will extend the truck’s driving range. Traditional garbage trucks get awful gas mileage, but putting electric motors in them has proved challenging given concerns over the range of the batteries.

Ratto has signed a contract with Wrightspeed to outfit 17 trucks of his trucks with its electric powertrains, which include its new turbine generator, called the Fulcrum. The turbine can run on fuels ranging from diesel to natural gas to propane and kerosene. Ratto will use diesel.

The turbine charges the battery, which then powers the wheels. This is a crucial distinction, as using turbines in vehicles has traditionally been unappealing because turbines are so inefficient at low speeds. Since the turbine is charging the battery and not powering the wheels at idle, there’s no problem.

If things go well with the first truck this summer, Ratto will receive three more shortly thereafter.

“When this works I will have significant savings. How much, I’m not sure,” Ratto said. “I’m dying to find out.” FedEx has pilot-tested the technology and placed 25 orders for its fleet.

Wrightspeed chief executive Ian Wright believes we’re at a turning point where turbine engines take hold of the market for land vehicles.

“Nobody had all the technology pieces lined up to make that work until now,” said Wright, who previously co-founded Tesla Motors. “There hasn’t been a turbine-generator engine until now that sort of got over the tipping point in terms of cost and efficiency, power to weight, multi-fuel.”