It has often been said that forklift buyers should look at the life cycle costs of a given truck rather than the initial cost. The same is now true of the truck’s motive power source, and hydrogen fuel cell technology seems to bear that out.
Major forklift producers like Hyster and Yale now offer a hydrogen fuel pack in their trucks but take- up has been slow mainly because initially they cost about twice as much as a lead-acid battery-powered forklift. Now, it seems, a breakthrough over the cost barrier perception comes from Amazon and Walmart’s big commitment to hydrogen fuel cells. Both these companies have each committed US$600 million to hydrogen-powered forklifts, using Power Plug cells. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, hydrogen is 10% cheaper over a 10-year life span of an average forklift but Power Plug, who will be supplying the two retail giants, says the cost advantage has improved further since the study.
A big plus for hydrogen is that they can be charged in minutes instead of hours and the fuelling process itself takes only two minutes instead of about 15 minutes needed to swap an electric battery. This helps free-up warehouse space (no need for standby batteries) and eliminates labour costs for charging batteries. Its ‘green’ credentials can even beat electric, especially if power is generated on site by solar panels. They are also superior to electric in that they don’t get sluggish inside cold stores or when their fuel runs low.
The outlook certainly looks more promising for hydrogen with much to go for now that two of the world’s biggest retailers have heavily committed nine-figure investment sums. Of over 600,000 forklifts in America, only 3% run on hydrogen but that number should now grow sharply. Little wonder, then, that the world’s biggest forklift maker, Toyota Motor Corp, has just begun to develop its own hydrogen-powered models.
Lead-acid battery forklifts will still remain hot favourites with industry users and will continue to grow at the expense of diesel, LPG and CNG, mainly because advances in battery technology and chargers grant them the same power punch in all conditions as ICEs powered by fossil fuels. They are also much more environmentally friendly and healthier, which promotes their use in food and pharma industries where hygiene issues are paramount. Within the electric camp, however, demand for traditional lead-acid batteries is likely to wane in favour of lithiumion and iron-phosphate. While lead-acid batteries are much cheaper than lithium-ion and ironphosphate initially, in terms of life cycle costs the latter should be cheaper because they deliver much quicker charging times which could dispense with costly stand-by batteries. Their initial costs are also falling in relation to lead-acid as their market take-up broadens.
If committed to supporting leadacid batteries it may be possible to cut your operating costs substantially simply through better care. Surveys confirm that most end users do not have full battery maintenance contracts on their fleets. Buying a new battery should not mean neglect simply because it comes with a one-year warranty so any problems in that year will be covered. The battery warranty only covers cell defects so incorrect charging and topping up are not covered, and so the end user could incur servicing charges for misuse.
Cell defects account for less than 0.09% of all warranty claims. These misuse costs, both inside and outside the warranty period, can be very high, typically accounting for 25% of the battery purchase cost. Additionally, such battery abuse could see the need for replacement after only two years, rather than the six that could be won through batter battery care.