SANTA'S WAREHOUSE WORKERS GO GREEN WITH FUEL CELLS
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
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 slashes carbon footprints.
"We convinced a group of large customers to give this
technology a trial," said Andy Marsh, president and
chief executive officer of Plug Power. "In some cases,
customers who were repeat buyers became
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
Switching to fuel cells also allows businesses to eliminate
battery switching and charging stations manned by full-time
crews. Those 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
"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
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."