As of New Year’s Day, a company not widely known in the ground support equipment industry starts work to develop a promising alternative to power electric tractors.
That’s the official start date that Plug Power Inc., Latham, NY, a fuel cell company started in 1997, begins a project funded with a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy to retrofit 15 Charlatte CTGE cargo tractors with its brand of hydrogen-powered fuel cells.
After some R&D, the tractors will be put to the test on the ramp by no less than FedEx at two airports, including its busy Memphis headquarters.
Plug Power may be a new name to Ground Support Worldwide readers, but it’s no stranger to FedEx since the company brings along a proven track record with its fuel cells used for material handling applications.
Two years ago, the DOE awarded FedEx Freight a multimillion-dollar grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to deploy fuel cell forklifts at its Springfield, MO warehouse.
Together with Plug Power and other partners in the funding, FedEx eventually installed 35 hydrogen fuel cell systems as lead battery replacements for a complete fleet of electric lift trucks at the Missouri service center. A permanent hydrogen fueling infrastructure was also built, including hydrogen storage and two indoor dispensing stations.
Although early sales were spurred by government money, Plug Power says its subsequent sales from the material handling industry have been earned without any financial incentives. To date, Plug Power says it has some 3,000 GenDrive fuel cells powering material handling equipment at 30 customer locations accumulating more than 8.5 million hours of runtime.
“There’s no going back to batteries for these customers,” says Reid Hislop, vice president of marketing and investor relations for Plug Power. “In cases where customers are planning to build new facilities, there are no allocations for charging stations and any extra room is used for additional business operations.”
Water is about the only emission produced by hydrogen-powered fuel cell equipment so H2 certainly qualifies as a bona-fide source of green energy. Plug Power, however, doesn’t sell energy efficiency as much as good old-fashioned company efficiency.
“The story for us is about improving productivity,” Hislop adds. “A company like FedEx is not going to invest in this type of energy technology unless its executives know they can improve performance and save money.”
Or companies such as Walmart, Sysco, P&G and Mercedes to name a few of Plug Power’s other customers that currently use its fuel cells in material handling vehicles (MHV) at warehouse locations around the country.
For Hislop, improvements can come down to minutes that quickly add up fast.
“If a rechargeable lead acid battery means a forklift is taken out of use for 20 minutes,” Hislop explains, “added up over a 100-lift fleet, you end up with a significant amount of cost.”
According to the company, refueling its fuel cells takes less than two minutes.
“It’s very much like putting gas in your car,” Hislop adds, “and that lift is ready to go at full speed for another shift.”
Moving into the GSE market seems an obvious choice to the company. At stake are not just cargo tractors, but all other electric GSE.
At this point, Plug Power’s work with the FedEx GSE project remains in its very early stages. What it’s developed as a simple drop in fuel cell to replace batteries inside MHV simply won’t be dropped into the 15 Charlatte tow tractors.
“We know that we’ll need to upsize our fuel cells to provide the proper amount of power and voltage to the equipment,” says Jim Petrecky, director of business development for Plug Power.
Since forklifts are typically working inside, Plug Power also needs to factor in all types of weather for the FedEx tractors. However, Petrecky adds that some his company’s customers operate MHV inside freezers all day long so there already is some freeze protection built into the current line of Plug Power fuel cells.
From news reports, business journals and even our President, it is predicted that hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles may soon be part of our everyday lives.