Fuel cells have been heralded as the green solution to cars. Much money has been invested into research and development for making the technology work in the car market, reducing emissions and making the air we breathe cleaner. While scientists are working on putting the technology into the car market, new companies have also emerged looking into building fuel cell for forklifts. And why not. Aren’t large distribution centers just like small cities with the amount of people and vehicles in them? So the argument goes that, maybe, more effort should be put into introducing fuel cells into materials handling equipment (MHE) first. So if fuel cells are the solution, what are the problems they solve? Some suggest the problems would include:
- Emissions and air quality
- Fuel costs
- Equipment costs
- Refueling time
- 3-shift operation challenges
So let’s examine these challenges and see how fuel cell technology can be the solution.
Emmissions and Air Quality
No question, the air quality in a warehouse is key. Fuel cells, like batteries, contribute no harmful emissions. In fact, they produce only water vapor which is absorbed by the warehouse air and or stored in a reservoir that gets removed during a fueling event. But the sourcing of hydrogen for the fuel cell is less straight forward. Hydrogen must first be produced from reforming natural gas, a process that separates the hydrogen gas using steam. This process produces more CO2 into the atmosphere than simply burning the gas would. So the environmental claims for fuel cells are no completely straight forward.
Hydrogen is not cheap. When you think about hydrogen fuel cells, you might think the fuel is competitive with the cost of propane or electricity. However, for equivalent work, the fuel cell will cost you twice for fuel over the price of electric going into a battery.
Another problem that fuel cells might solve is the cost of batteries for forklifts. Batteries continue to rise in costs and represent, with chargers, a large investment for the fueling of forklift trucks. The problem is that fuel cells are expensive also. The are roughly the price of 3 batteries each, but are estimated to have a useful operational life of 10 years – longer than the estimated useful life of a forklift battery. Also, whereas a ferroresonant battery charger costs roughly $2,000, the infrastructure to refuel a fuel cell is anywhere from $300,000 to $1,000,000. Assuming 3 shifts at $2,000 per forklift charger, there would need to be 75 forklifts to equal the cost of hydrogen refueling infrastructure costs.
So the advantage of Hydrogen Fuel Cells for forklifts, so far, is not the overall environmental impact of emissions, nor fuel costs, nor equipment costs. So what is the justification for fuel cells? Well, a good place to look is the labor involved in exchanging batteries in a 3 shift environment versus the time required to refill the hydrogen reservoir in a fuel cell. Often, the time allocated for changing forklift batteries is 10 to 15 minutes. When you use $18 per hour labor costs, this would be over $3, 375 of labor wasted changing batteries per lift truck, not to mention the cost of operating a battery changer and the equipment itself. The time it takes to refuel a hydrogen fuel cell is reported to be around 5 minutes. So the time savings for switching to fuel cells is estimated at 10 minutes per forklift per shift.
Therefore, using our example, the savings for a 75 lift truck operation is $168,750 per year. Given a $300,000 minimum investment in hydrogen fueling infrastructure, then the payback is 2 years or less. If you need to reform your own hydrogen and need a more expensive infrastructue, the return on investment (ROI) is longer. If fuel cells are proposed for a green field site, then savings from the elimination of a charging area plus the battery changer would yield a further $100,000 in savings to shorten the ROI. If you take into consideration the savings for replacement batteries in the traditional electric lift truck scenario, a further $750,000 is saved after 5 years. This assumes that batteries run for only 5 years in a 3 shift environment. The ROI is looking better and better.
If you are considering fuel cells for forklifts, an ROI is possible, but you might find it in labor versus other items such as capital costs, fuel costs, and in emmissions and environmental items. Please comment below, if you have ideas or other thoughts around fuel cells.