Lift Truck Tips: Fuel cells check milestone off the list

Following impressive sales, forklift fuel cell makers shift gears toward the future.

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Fuel cell battery replacement units for electric lift trucks posted a banner year in 2011, when both lift truck suppliers and fuel cell providers saw growth in interest and sales of fuel cell offerings. Plug Power alone took orders for five times as many units as in 2010, according to Reid Hislop, vice president of marketing and investor relations at Plug Power. However, although the latest incarnations of the technology have reached the tipping point for commercial viability, says Hislop, the fuel cell industry must now adjust its focus.

Hydrogen infrastructure in a facility—whether it includes on-site hydrogen production or not—remains very costly. This and other forces conspire to make the ideal fuel cell customer a somewhat large one. While larger companies have deeper pockets, they might also bring more scrutiny and skepticism to emerging technologies. Hislop says that more than 7 million hours of runtime data and more than 2,500 units in the field have borne out the promise of fuel cells.

“The commercial viability is there, as proven by the number of customers with 100 or more lift trucks running on hydrogen fuel cells,” says Hislop. “This stuff is real, it works, and if it didn’t there would be a world of hurt.”

But although the average threshold for viability is a multi-shift fleet of about 30 trucks or more, incremental progress is being made to expand the availability of the fuel cell alternative. The value proposition of fuel cells assumes the elimination of lead-acid battery swaps. Removing that process from the daily workflow creates huge productivity improvements, says Hislop. Energy costs end up being about equal between electric and fuel cells, but big savings are found in productivity and reduced real estate costs.

Customers who build a new facility with hydrogen infrastructure can see immediate savings from the first day the facility opens its doors, says Hislop, who estimates the removal of the battery room can reduce new building square footage by between 6% and 8%. Retrofits can take as much as 18 months to produce the same returns, but remain very attractive to some companies.

“If the removal of the battery room can enable a company to make better use of available space and postpone investing as much as $100 million into a new building, then there are even further savings,” says Hislop.

Hislop says that although the outlook is good for fuel cell technology, it is still subject to lingering criticism from the early 2000s, when fuel cells for materials handling applications enjoyed a meteoric rise and subsequent contraction.

“It’s still an emerging technology,” says Hislop. “But we should expect more growth as the technology and access to hydrogen improve.”

Read more Lift Truck Tips.

About the Author

Josh Bond, Contributing Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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