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While warehouses have been content to use propane, electric, and diesel forklifts there has been a quiet revolution in the availability of hydrogen fuel cell lifts. As early as 2013 more than 4,000 fuel cell forklifts were being used in the United States.
Moreover, well-known companies including BMW, Coca Cola, FedEx, Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart have been using the vehicles in their warehouses and distribution centers for years.
Hydrogen fuel cell forklifts carry all of the advantages one would find in an electric lift. However, it also has a plethora of benefits over the battery-powered version.
· There is no need to swap out or recharge a battery.
· The vehicle won’t lose power as it uses up the hydrogen.
· The lift can be fueled at a station inside the warehouse in minutes.
· The fuel cell and hydrogen tank can be directly replaced.
· There are no hazardous materials, so disposal is safe and cheap.
· Less storage space is required for the fuel cell.
· They are safe to handle and maintain.
· There is increased forklift life due to no voltage decay or stress on electrical components.
· The fuel cell eliminates the need to recharge batteries resulting in lower electricity costs.
Other benefits can be found in the way hydrogen is made. It is created from natural gas and water and so there are nearly no emissions. In addition, fuel cells perform two times more efficiently than an internal combustion engine and the only by-product are water and heat.
The wider availability of natural gas and the federal and state governments’ promotion of it help to decrease the cost of the hydrogen fuel.
Another fact that sweetens the pot for a hydrogen fuel cell forklift is the cost of ownership. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) analyzed the total cost of ownership of a fuel cell hydrogen forklift and found that for Class I and II lifts used in multiple shifts, fuel cell lifts could reduce the overall cost of ownership by 10 percent, from $19,700 per year per lift to $17,800 per year per lift. The cost of ownership for a Class III lift can be reduced by 5 percent, from $12,400 per year to $11,700 per year for each lift. Moreover, fuel cells can lower annual per-lift labor costs from $4,400 for battery changes and charging to only $800 for hydrogen fueling and lower annual facility space costs from $1,900 to $500.
It all sounds promising. However, total sale of hydrogen fuel cell forklifts is low compared to the other alternatives. It is reported that this version of forklift is servicing only about 1 percent of the market. The technology is relatively new and the infrastructure to support it is still in development. And, although there are federal tax credits for fuel cells, the break is scheduled to expire at the end of 2016.
Still, the businesses that require larger warehouses and distribution facilities remain bullish on hydrogen fuel cell forklifts. For example, last year Wal-Mart ordered more than 1,700 fuel cell lifts for six facilities that will be delivered over a two-year period.