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Beware Fuel Cell Lift Trucks

Considerations before suggesting hydrogen fuel cells to customers

Over the past few years, hydrogen fuel cells have become a more popular topic for discussion as a power source for lift trucks. Fuel cell manufacturers tout benefits such as consistent power consumption, ease of refueling and non-toxic emissions compared to industrial batteries. In their limited tests, especially with low lift, Class III trucks, fuel cell-powered machines have shown that they can perform adequately with refills being done relatively quickly by the forklift operator.

Industrial batteries are a tried-and-true reliable power source for industrial trucks.

For these reasons, hydrogen fuel cells may indeed be a solution for end-users—down the road. There are still a few concerns that distributors should consider in a detailed way before encouraging customers to move forward with adoption. I have addressed four such concerns below.

Productivity — Fuel cell manufacturers contend that fuel cell use improves productivity because battery changing—which is eliminated by using a fuel cell—can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. In reality, current battery changing technology typically switches out a battery in three to five minutes. Furthermore, advanced technology can change out a battery in one minute or less. That is a significant difference and is not much different than the actual time that it will take to refill a fuel cell (roughly three minutes). I believe this affects the ROI calculations that fuel cell companies are presenting to the market.

Business Model — Secondly, many fuel cell manufacturers have been the beneficiaries of state and federal tax incentives and subsidies, primarily the result of “alternative fuel” credits. Those tax breaks and subsidies—which have not been afforded to the rest of the industry—allow fuel cell makers to offer prices that are attractive to customers. I don’t know how long these tax breaks will be in effect, but I do know the point at which they run out will be a significant moment for the industry. When the funding is gone, is the current model sustainable? Will these companies be able to survive? There’s a risk that end-users who purchase fuel cells won’t have a place to turn for future service.

Service — Third, some companies have tested fuel cells and found that the cost of servicing these modules is significantly more than the current battery-and-charger model. I’m not sure that has been adequately explained to the end-users. Plus, how much service does a fuel cell need? Any discussion you have with a consumer about fuel cells needs to involve the service cost and warranty. But it’s hard to have that discussion with hard numbers on service costs and total cost of ownership because most fuel cells have only been in service for a few years.

For an opposing viewpoint on hydrogen fuel cell-powered lift trucks, click here.

The Unknown — Finally, fuel cell companies have yet to demonstrate full-scale production capabilities and make on-time deliveries to forklift customers. They have a decent track record for pallet jacks and smaller operations, but at least one customer has waited for more than a year to receive fuel cells for its reach truck fleet.

Distributors should be aware of all the benefits and concerns to be able to provide accurate information to their customers.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Associtation
Dan Dwyer Meet the AuthorDan Dwyer is vice president and general manager at Sackett Systems, located in Bensenville, Illinois, and on the Web at www.sackett-systems.com.

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