By Mark Luth
Several major corporations looking to increase sustainability or improve efficiency have turned to fuel cell providers over the last year. These customers have installed stationary fuel cells that replace grid electricity or provide backup power, deployed fuel cell-powered material handling equipment that optimize factory tasks, or placed orders for a range of other hydrogen-fueled transportation applications such as medium- and heavy-duty trucks, delivery vans, buses, and more.
This post focuses on material handling equipment, where fuel cells contribute to sustainability improvements and overcoming logistical limitations. This sector is ideal for fuel cells for multiple reasons. The power units operate at a consistent level throughout the shift, while battery forklifts face power sag as the charge is used. The refueling infrastructure for hydrogen uses space more efficiently than battery charging facilities, which require rotating multiple batteries and storing those that are currently charging, allowing companies to maximize their operational space. Refueling also takes one to three minutes; saving forklift operators valuable time over battery charging that has a twenty minute minimum, which in turn, saves the company money.
Here are just a few examples of recent fuel cell material handling equipment sales and deployments in the United States and around the world.
In April, Lipari Foods selected FCHEA member Plug Power’s GenDrive fuel cells as the power supply for material handling vehicles at its facility in Michigan. By changing from battery-charged vehicles, which Lipari had to charge offsite due to space limitations, the company is able to reduce costs and optimize the time of their workers.
Plug Power’s forklifts are also the key operational vehicle at Walmart’s Import Distribution Center in Mobile, Alabama. The center opened in August 2018 and the entire fleet of 182 forklifts runs on GenDrive hydrogen fuel cells. The 2.6 million square-foot facility supplies more than 700 stores in the region and represents a deepening of Plug Power’s existing relationship with Walmart, which has already seen more than 2,000 of the forklifts added to Walmart’s fleet at multiple facilities across the country.
American distributors are not the only companies looking for sustainable power solutions in warehouses, as Plug Power also provided GenDrive-powered forklifts to French company Carrefour, one of the world’s largest retailers, in November. Carrefour’s Vendin-le-Vieil, France, facility is the company’s second to deploy fuel cell-powered vehicles, following an initial fleet of 137 trucks at the opening of the warehouse.
FCHEA member BMW deployed fuel cell-powered forklifts at its manufacturing plant in Leipzig, Germany, in 2018. Developed by a consortium that included Linde Material Group, the forklifts are part of a BMW-led project aimed at further developing the value chain for hydrogen-based indoor logistics. In the initial wave, 70 forklifts joined the fleet at the facility with on-site refueling, and BMW has been operating one of the largest fleets in the U.S., with 275 vehicles in operation, at its South Carolina manufacturing plant.
Port of Los Angeles
Along with equipment inside of distribution centers and factories, a fuel cell-powered container handler is being introduced at the Port of Los Angeles. Developed by Hyster and its subsidiary, FCHEA member Nuvera, the top loading laden container handler will be powered by a Nuvera fuel cell engine paired with a lithium-ion battery to increase efficiency for operations. Hyster is also working with the Port of Valencia, Spain to develop a fuel cell reachstacker. Ports provide an outstanding proving ground for fuel cells in high-intensity, heavy-duty service, and are intended to demonstrate their viability as alternatives to diesel internal combustion engines. The Los Angeles and Valencia projects will show the varied uses that fuel cells can play in the handling and transport of cargo in shipping ports around the world.
The material handling industry has moved towards fuel cells because they provide benefits for warehouses, ports and other localized operations. The efficiency of refueling and consistent, reliable power generated from fuel cells simplifies logistical challenges by reducing space requirements and scheduling limitations that come with battery-operated vehicles. With fleets of fuel cell-powered material handling vehicles operating at some of the world’s largest companies, the technology shows that it is competitive now.