Fuel cell report highlights continued growth in material handling applications

Industry experts expect banner year as technology becomes more cost-effective for smaller fleets.

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According to a new report from Fuel Cell Today, a London-based market intelligence firm, annual global fuel cell shipments increased by 86% between 2011 and 2012. Shipments for transport-related fuel cells, which includes battery replacement units for electric lift trucks, increased 69% to 2,700 units, eclipsing last year’s sales of 1,600 units.

The report states that materials handling vehicles (MHV) continue to be an important niche market for the fuel cell industry. Popularized following government subsidies associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, fuel cell-equipped forklifts have seen repeat orders even in the absence of subsidies in 2011 and 2012. The report cites BMW’s manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, S.C., where the world’s largest forklift fuel cell fleet is operating with more than 275 units.

“The materials handling sector continues to thrive,” the report stated. “North America is a significant contributor to annual megawatts shipped…due to its adoption of fuel cells for materials handling equipment.”

The lift truck market for fuel cells had a good year, according to Andy Marsh, president and CEO of Plug Power, a leading provider of fuel cell battery replacement units for lift trucks. “We see this next year as being a real breakout year,” he said in a recent interview. “We expect we’ll ship more than 3,000 units, many to current customers.”

Those customers encompass more than 43 facilities whose lift truck fleets have been fully converted to hydrogen fuel cells, and which operate a combined 4,000 units purchased in the past 3 years, Marsh said. Next year, Marsh said there are plans to convert a further 20 facilities, including some in Europe.

Gus Block, director of marketing and government affairs at Nuvera, said the growth of fuel cell conversions will increasingly include smaller fleets. Those customers who would use less than 100 kg of hydrogen per day represent 80% of the market, he said, and hydrogen costs remain low even at smaller rates of consumption. “This is very significant for the industry,” said Block. “There may have been a perception that hydrogen was cost-effective only for DCs with 100 or more lift trucks. It’s now possible to get comparable pricing for a fleet of between 20 and 50 units.”

Going forward, facilities with hydrogen infrastructure in place that also manage fleets of refrigerated trailers will be candidates for the ongoing development of fuel cell replacements of diesel refrigeration units. Block said the costs of fuel cell replacements are already on par with diesel, and further improvements will likely result from a recent grant by the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate the viability and benefits of such systems.

Block also encouraged potential customers to take advantage of the 30% investment tax credit available for fuel cell lift truck and transportation applications. “It’s a sweet spot right now, since prices have come down in general and the product is maturing,” said Block. “It’s not a bad time to consider fuel cells in advance of the tax credit’s 2016 expiration.”

Marsh said government initiatives have been key to promoting fuel cell technology in material handling and beyond, but he looks forward to increased partnership with lift truck OEMS. He envisions a lift truck designed around the fuel cell as opposed to the fuel cell unit being designed to mimic a battery. “The lift truck OEMs have much greater design capabilities than we would every have, and designing a lift truck around a fuel cell could create a great deal of flexibility,” he said. “With lighter engine and the battery no longer serving as a counterweight, we could do some interesting things.”

More highlights from the report:
In 2012, North America was the destination for 6,800 fuel cell systems, whether for transport, stationary or portable applications. That accounts for only about 15% of global system shipments (with Asia accounting for 61%) but in terms of total megawatts produced, North America is home to 37% of the world total.

Data from the World Industrial Truck Statistics indicates the European market for MHV is 56% larger than the American market. The report states efforts are underway to translate to Europe the success of fuel cell forklifts in America. In the meantime, the report suggests fuel cells will see the most significant growth in materials handling applications at airports and ports.

For 2013, the report predicts transport-related fuel cell shipments will taper somewhat to 2,000 unit shipped, still a 25% increase from 2011.


About the Author

Josh Bond, Senior Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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