Do Disadvantages of Fuel Cells Outweigh Their Benefits?

fuel cell for forkliftThe makers of hydrogen fuel cells believe they are the forklift power supply of the future because they are more environmentally friendly than traditional lead-acid batteries, gasoline or other types of power.

And some of the country’s biggest companies — including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Sysco — have climbed on the fuel cell bandwagon, using them on at least a portion of their forklift fleets.

But despite this, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of forklift fleet managers to commit to this cutting-edge power supply.

So if fuel cells are such a great option for powering forklifts, why isn’t everybody using them?

Benefits of Fuel Cell

Fuel cells provide a couple of key advantages over other forklift power sources:

  • Faster Refueling — Fuel cells can be repowered in as little as 10 minutes, compared to lead acid batteries which require several hours of recharging before they are ready to be returned to action.
  • Space Savers — Fuel cell refueling stations also are more compact and don’t require the space-stealing battery rooms. Vehicles powered by fuels have no power degradation over the course of a long shift, unlike traditional electric forklifts.
  • Cleaner Operation — Fuel cells have zero emissions, which allows them to be used both indoors and outdoors, unlike diesel or propane-powered vehicles which can only be used indoors if areas are large and well-ventilated.
  • Versatility —  Fuel cells operate efficiently in sub-zero refrigerated warehouses, but battery-operated forklifts can quickly be drained of power under those conditions.

Disadvantages Outweigh the Benefits?

Steve Dues, vice president for Crown Equipment, said some fleet managers are reluctant to commit to fuel cell-powered forklifts.

“There are a number of (return on investment) considerations that have yet to be fully resolved,” Dues told DC Velocity. “These include the complexity of the technology, total cost of ownership, reliability issues, and the absence of a refueling infrastructure to support widespread adoption.”

Other concerns include the need for further technological development, high acquisition costs, and the limited number of fuel cell suppliers currently in the marketplace.

Another concern is the federal 30 percent fuel cell investment tax credit, which is set to expire next year.

Going Back to Batteries?

Some early adopters of fuel cells already have abandoned their experiments and have returned to using other types of forklifts, according to Mark Tomaszewski, manager of EnerSys, a battery manufacturer.

Tomaszewski said many fleet managers are worried about the high costs of the fuel itself and the fact that it can take up to 16 weeks to build the delivery, refueling and storage infrastructure to support fuel cell forklifts.

There are even concerns about whether fuel cells are as “green” as their makers claim. A study conducted at the Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago, found that when the emissions produced during the entire cycle of hydrogen production, storage, delivery, fueling and vehicle operation are added up, fuel cell-powered forklifts may actually account for more greenhouse gas emissions than battery-powered forklifts.

In the meantime, lead-acid batteries continue to remain the dominant power source for forklifts and other industrial vehicles — at least until some of these concerns can be addressed.

“Alternative power sources will gain market share as they prove they can solve customer problems at a competitive price,” Dues said.

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