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Up to now discussions about hydrogen fuel cells as a means to power vehicles has been somewhat in the realm of science fiction. Every once in awhile we hear about a major automaker like Honda experimenting with fuel cell vehicles. Sometimes we report about major companies like Toyota experimenting with the use of fuel cells and fuel cell infrastructure for use by forklifts.
Those reports seem to indicate that fuel cell technology is still in the development stages. However, a company called Plug Power, headquartered in Latham, New York with offices in Spokane, Washington and France, reports that there are currently 40 companies that have equipped 10,000 forklifts with Plug Power fuel cells that have achieved more than 110 million hours of operation in North America and Europe.
Its program called GenKey is providing hydrogen fuel cells and the infrastructure that supports them for use by companies with fleets of forklifts.
The company argues that:
· Fuel cells are cost effective and a viable alternative to propane or electric powered forklifts.
· The use of fuel cells on forklifts increase productivity.
· Fuel cell forklifts have very little downtime.
· Fuel cells operate well in extreme temperatures.
According to Plug Power, the use of fuel cells on forklifts can save warehouses as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s because there is no need to pull a forklift from operation because its batteries need charging or needs to be replaced. The use of fuel cells also eliminates the need to set aside funds for battery charging and changing equipment. Moreover, time need not be wasted watering batteries and maintaining equipment needed to service batteries. Fuel cells also help to lower a warehouse’s electricity costs. According to Plug Power, on average, lead-acid battery charging accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of a warehouse’s electricity use and about 50 percent of peak demand charges because of spikes in electricity usage when batteries are being charged.
In addition, Plug Power claims that fuel cell customers are witnessing a 15 percent increase in productivity because fuel cell forklifts have very little downtime. According to Plug Power, lead-acid batteries need changing once per shift, which consumes about 15 minutes of a forklift’s operating time. On the other hand, it takes an average of about two minutes to refuel a hydrogen fuel cell. Prorate that out for an entire year and you would discover that 13 extra minutes off a shift for a battery change accounts for more than 156 hours of lost productive time per forklift in a three-shift operation and it is therefore easier to predict the availability of each forklift of a fleet.
Plug Power asserts that the fuel cells it offers in its GenDrive program “fit seamlessly” into and existing electric forklift, pallet jack or other material handling truck fleet.
The company’s GenFuel program is dedicated to delivering the hydrogen molecules to the customer’s site based on customer use. It also provides the infrastructure to support the fueling of a forklift fleet. This includes the design, procurement, construction, commissioning and maintenance for all components required to dispense hydrogen fuel.
So it appears that hydrogen fuel cell technology is more developed than many of us may have thought, making it a viable alternative to propane or batteries.