Santa's Warehouse Workers Go Green with Fuel Cells
CREDIT: Plug Power
Thousands of battery-powered forklifts in warehouses across the U.S. will haul everything from frozen turkeys and cured hams to big-screen TVs and tablet computers this holiday season. A growing number of big-name businesses that operate such warehouses have begun deploying forklifts that run on fuel cells as a way to both save money and go green.
Most such fuel cell-powered forklifts working the North American warehouses of Coca-Cola, FedEx, Wal-Mart, Kroger and CVS come from an upstate New York company called Plug Power. The company has dominated fuel cell-powered forklift sales in North America by offering up its GenDrive fuel cell technology that boosts warehouse productivity, lowers operating costs, and also slashes carbon footprints.
"We convinced a group of large customers to give this technology a trial," said Andy Marsh, president and CEO of Plug Power. "In some cases, customers who were repeat buyers became believers."
Beyond its rapid growth in the $4 billion North American market for handling materials, Plug Power has also taken aim at the $20 billion worldwide market. It recently struck a deal with Axane to begin deploying fuel cell-powered forklifts in Europe.
The company's expansion has relied upon how its fuel cells can transform the warehouse business by cleanly creating electricity from the chemical reaction between oxygen in the air and hydrogen gas. GenDrive fuel cells are paired with lithium-ion batteries.
Such fuel cells allow forklifts to continue working at full speed and power up until they need to refuel, whereas forklifts powered by lead-acid batteries suffer a performance drop-off of as much as 15 percent as their power drains.
Switching to fuel cells also allows businesses to eliminate battery switching and charging stations manned by full-time crews that can take up to 6 percent of valuable warehouse space. Instead, fuel cell-powered forklifts only need a wall-mounted hydrogen refueling station where vehicle operators can refuel within a few minutes.
Plug Power's list of customers has grown to more recently include Wal-Mart Canada, German automaker BMW, and food distributor Sysco. Those corporate giants have begun snapping up Plug Power's fuel cell-powered forklifts ranging in cost from $12,000 to $28,000 because they see big business savings despite the cost of the new equipment.
"One of the problems with the [fuel cell] industry for many years was that people didn't recognize that the money aspect is more important than the green aspect," Marsh told InnovationNewsDaily. "Customers want to make the right decision for the environment, but they also want to make the right decision financially."
Getting fuel cell technology
to the point where it makes stronger business sense has taken about a
decade, Marsh explained. Plug Power itself started in 1997, but
When Marsh took over, he streamlined the business to focus on the forklifts and cut Plug Power's operating costs from $58 million per year to $16 million. The company's growing business sales since then have allowed it to project shipping enough forklifts next year to become profitable.
As more warehouses install the hydrogen-refueling stations to support fuel cell-powered forklifts, Plug Power expects new business opportunities. Marsh expects his company to target fuel cell-powered refrigerated trailers for industrial food distributors such as Sysco, as well as off-road vehicle fleets used by FedEx or UPS that can piggyback on the warehouse fueling stations.
"The key is that you don't wait for somebody to build out hydrogen infrastructure everywhere think about how you can build it yourself," Marsh said. "Build a hydrogen fueling station that can operate like a gas station today."