In 2010, the third-party logistics company Genco Supply Chain Solutions embarked on an ambitious three-year fuel cell pilot. It bought 25 hydrogen fuel-cell power units from Plug Power Inc. and proceeded to convert every lift truck to hydrogen at a 450,000-square-foot DC it operates in Graniteville, S.C., for Kimberly-Clark Corp.
The test project, conducted with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, is now drawing to a close. So how has it all worked out?
Though the final results aren't in yet, the company has definitely seen some benefits, reports Bob Simon, Genco's senior director, contract packaging, and project manager for the fuel-cell implementation. For one thing, it only takes four or five minutes to refuel, far less than fast-charge battery charging, Simon said in an interview. Because the warehouse is a 24-hour, five-day operation, Genco is saving an estimated 20 to 30 minutes per day per truck. With 25 vehicles, that adds up to a lot more productive time on the floor, he says.
Another benefit has been the consistent energy level afforded by hydrogen fuel cells. "You don't have the loss of power like when a battery degrades or loses its charge. You get the same output even when the fuel cell is almost empty," Simon explains. The condition of the trucks, moreover, appears to be better than you'd expect in a battery-powered fleet after three years. That has not been quantified yet, but if the observation bears out, it could indicate that fuel cells help to extend the life expectancy of a lift truck, he says.
But the technology is changing so quickly that Genco and other adopters must consider whether to move to a newer type of cell before the original equipment wears out. Fuel cells have a longer expected lifespan than batteries, and it may get harder, and thus costlier, to obtain parts for maintenance and repair of older versions. The next generation, moreover, will refill in two to three minutes, further improving productivity, Simon notes. Newer versions will run cooler than the current generation—a significant benefit for forklift operators who work inside truck trailers or in hot climates.
Genco wants to continue using hydrogen fuel cells at the Graniteville DC and to introduce them to other facilities when appropriate. Size will matter, though: For now, at least, the initial cost, including hydrogen filling infrastructure, may be too high for smaller fleets. "Until it has a good level of adoption, any new technology tends to be pricier," Simon says. "But I think you can make the solution work in large fleets that run lots of hours."