Despite Doubts, Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles Are Breaking Into the EV Market

Plug Power fuel cell EVs.

Fuel cells have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to beating out lithium-ion batteries for domination of the emerging electric vehicle market. “A lot” is an understatement. When you ask auto industry followers about the potential for fuel cell electric vehicles, you are likely to be met with rolled eyes and a repetition of the same old joke: “They say fuel cells are the next big thing, and they’ve been saying that for 30 years.”

However, if you take a look at what’s been going on in at least one specialty niche of the EV market, you can catch a glimpse of the possibility for fuel cells to win out, at least for some applications. That potential is illustrated by Plug Power and Ace Hardware, which have paired up to bring entire fleets of fuel cell electric vehicles into shipping and handling operations.

Fuel cell EVs for warehouses

Plug Power first came across Triple Pundit’s radar in 2012. Though the auto industry’s interest in fuel cell EVs was on the wane back then, companies like Plug Power recognized the attraction of fuel cell EVs for warehouse operations and other specialty markets.

In particular, the closed environment of a warehouse demands zero-emission forklifts and other specialty vehicles.

Seaports and other shipping operations are also increasingly looking toward zero-emission logistics, especially those located in urban areas looking to improve overall air quality.

To demonstrate the efficiency of fuel cell technology in commercial use, the Obama administration has recruited private sector partners to deploy fleets of fuel cell forklifts, as well as stationary fuel cells, for backup power.

As for the bottom-line advantages of fuel cells over batteries in shipping and logistics, back in 2012 CEO Andy Marsh summed them up quite nicely (break added for clarity, and here’s that link again):

The main issue is productivity. It can take up to 15 to 20 minutes to replace a battery (which occurs every 6 hours or so). Fells cells run longer and can be refilled in just a few minutes.

Furthermore, battery power declines during a shift, and over its life, slowing the vehicles in the process, while fuel cells can remain constant over their life. Finally, we eliminate the battery room, which can take up 6 to 7 percent of a large distribution facility.

Plug Power and Ace Hardware

Fast forward a few years, and Plug Power has grown a solid roster of customers for its GenDrive fuel cell technology.

The Ace Hardware order marks the first all-hydrogen fleet for Ace, consisting of class-2 and class-3 lift and reach trucks. This fleet was deployed at the company’s just-finished 450,000 square-foot warehouse in Texas three months ago, along with an on-site hydrogen fueling station.

The preliminary results have already given Ace enough evidence to go forward with another deployment of  GenDrive fuel cell electric vehicles. This one is slated for an even bigger warehouse under construction in Ohio, clocking in at 534,000 square feet.

Once the second fleet is up and running, Ace will lay claim to a total of 130 hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

One thing worth noting here is that the confined area of operation and the on-site fueling station together relieve the technology of one major criticism: There is no public infrastructure for refueling hydrogen fuel cell EVs.

That still holds true for open-road vehicles, but you could have made a similar case against battery EVs just a few years ago. If all goes according to plan, the Obama administration’s H2 USA initiative will help the fuel cell market catch up sooner rather than later.

Getting the hydrogen for your fuel cell forklift

As of this writing, the hydrogen fuel cell market is highly dependent on hydrogen sourced from fossil natural gas.

That opens a huge can of sustainability worms, but it also puts fuel cell EVs on the same footing as battery EVs that are charged from a grid mix that consists of fossil sources.

That point will soon be moot for the battery EV market, which is rapidly shedding its reliance on fossil fuel-sourced electricity.

The fuel cell market is also beginning to take strides in that direction. Hydrogen sourced from solar-powered water splitting is one example. Biogas is another potential route, including biogas sourced from wastewater treatment plants.

Image courtesy of Plug Power

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

13 responses

  1. 7/14/2014

    In my opinion Very Very Impressive… So at 5.6kg to fill up costing approx. $30 to travel that distance vs. what we pay now? Pollution free with Pure Water coming out of the tailpipe! Cost in health savings anyone? Many many $$$ Billions!!!
    Will Hydrogen Be Cheaper Than Gasoline? Who Knows?
    The pump we used quoted the price of hydrogen at $5 per kilogram. The actual cost for pump hydrogen in the future is difficult to estimate with any accuracy, though, since the volume and infrastructure aren’t yet mature. Balch cites studies that foresee the price of hydrogen leveling off between $2 and $4 per kilogram, and he points out that a kilogram of H2 typically provides more range than a gallon of gas. Once the price of hydrogen does come down, it should carry a cost per mile that’s similar to or better than that of gasoline. Better yet, once established, the price is not expected to fluctuate with the same volatility as that of gasoline.
    So although the process of pumping hydrogen into a fuel-cell vehicle is pretty simple (and getting simpler), the process of pumping hydrogen into our infrastructure could be one of the great challenges of our generation. At least we can look forward to keeping our hands clean.
    The ix35 Fuel Cell is equipped with a 100 kW electric motor, allowing it to reach a maximum speed of 160 km/h (99 mph). Two hydrogen storage tanks, with a total capacity of 5.64 kg, enable the vehicle to travel a total of 594 km (369 miles) on a single charge, and it can reliably start in temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius.
    Hyundai ix35 “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle


    Fuel Cell Energy and Air Products have a demo system up and running as we speak in Orange County, CA. utilizing municipal “wastewater” creating 3 (three) value streams of Hydrogen, Electricity and Heat all from a human waste!!!
    Video (Someone took down the video but the article still there) below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure.

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”

    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    Hyundai “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle
    $499 per month w/ Free Fuel & Free Maintenance from Hyundai!!! (pure water for exhaust)

    Toyota joins California Hydrogen Push in Station Funding – Bloomberg

    1. Creating hydrogen is about as pollution free and refining tar sands into oil.

      The price of hydrogen is not going down any time soon unless someone expects natural gas prices to go down. There’s also nowhere to fuel it so whats the point in lying to consumers about price?

  2. Fuel cells will erase rechargeable electric cars completely. It is much more comfortable for people used to filling up with gas to simply fill up with hydrogen or some other convenient fuel. I never believed electric rechargeable cars could compete. I wouldn’t consider one myself.

    1. There’s nowhere to fuel a hydrogen car in America unless you live near LA or SF. Forget traveling long distances, you can zigzag around the very few hydrogen stations and thats it. And only very very few new ones are coming. The reason? The fueling stations cost around $4million and are restricted to servicing about 30 cars a day (how long it takes to make that beautiful hydrogen).

      “It might take five minutes to fill a car, but in a ten-hour day the
      station can only produce enough hydrogen to fill 30 cars or six buses.
      That’s how long the reformation, compression and cryogenics processes

      Not to mention who’s going to spend $70K to go 0 to 6 in 12 seconds in a glorified Prius? The Model S has the performance and looks to match the price. Not so with your hydro-fool.

      1. I can make all those arguments against electrics. Takes hours to recharge them, recharging stations are scarce, can’t drive one across country on vacation, they will strain the grid, the cost of the vehicle is obscene, who will pay a minimum of 35K for a crappy little car with no range. 70K for a Tesla? Give me a break. Fuel cells have far more potential. Give them ten years and they will do to electrics what VHS did to Betamax.

      2. Then consider where the electricity to recharge you toy comes from; you are simply trading tailpipe emissions for another kind. All of this is nonsense anyway, I don’t believe in AGW and I am not worried about the planet dying.

    2. Well, that is short sighted offense. But, look up Aluminum Air batteries. They are talking 1K miles per charge. We will look back at centralized fueling stations and won’t believe we how backwards it is!

  3. This article is exactly correct. Fuel cell will be useful alternatives to gasoline for fleet, trucking, mass transit, etc.

    But will be a hard sell for commuters.

    Why bother going to a FC filling station, when you can charge at home, at work, and if you have solar, free charging.

    The time, the convenience, the savings of EV has already made its mark.

    FC. Too little. Too late.

  4. Two contributions to the article:
    1. The auto industry’s interest in fuel cells was not on the wane in 2012; in fact, it was just the opposite. Toyota and Honda will begin selling in California in 2015 – and Hyundai has begun leasing vehicles in Southern California as of June 2014. It takes several years to prepare for a vehicle ket launch.
    2. California requires that 33% of the hydrogen sold at its publicly funded stations must come from renewable sources (solar, wind, biomass). Once the station reaches a particular throughput, all stations must do so, too.
    Disclosure: I work for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

  5. Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles have a ton of catching up to do if they are to even make a dent in the BEV market adoption.

    There’s hardly any Hydrogen fuel stations in the U.S. and almost all are located in the LA area in California.

    Can you imagine someone trying to sell you a car you can only refuel with gasoline at about a dozen gas stations all around the same city? The whole idea as of today that Hydrogen is catching up is only but a pipe dream.

    Since the Hydrogen infrastructure requires as much work to build as the gasoline infrastructure we have today to be able to feed the masses, it will take at least a decade or 2 to become a truly mass market viable alternative.

    Electricity on the other hand can be found practically every where in the U.S., sure some might say it takes hours to charge; but at least you can charge it. You don’t have to rely on a dozen specific locations in the country to do so like Hydrogen does. Plus most charging is done overnight while you sleep at home.

    Pure Battery EV naysayers make it sound as if YOU HAVE TO have a charging station built in your city to own an EV. The reality completely destroys that argument. Most daily driving never reaches even 50 miles a day. Even the cheapest and smallest battery electric vehicles have at least 80 miles of driving range. It takes less than 4 hours to charge 50 miles of battery overnight by plugging into any standard 240v outlet. Boom, you wake up the next day and you’re ready to go again with another 80 miles of charge.

    The idea of road trips is also silly. Most Americans take road trips maybe 2 times a year, while the rest of the year they drive under 50 miles a day. You’re telling me that someone shouldn’t buy a car based on 2 times a year you may not get to use it?

    The running costs of Battery EV is about 1/4 that of a gasoline vehicle. If you spend let’s say 300 dollars a month on gasoline, you would only spend about 75 dollars a month on an EV. Those 225 dollars you save a month amount to $2700 dollars a year that you can use to go on vacation in plane to the Bahamas or rent any car you want for a few weeks if planning a road trip.

    This is a non argument, it is a no brainer, pure Battery EVs are just way more convenient than Hydrogen.

    If you stuck with Hydrogen you would still have to go to other places to fuel instead of the comfort of your home and depend on big corporations that control the price of the fuel just like today. Plus the creation is Hydrogen is an energy wasting process compared to pure electric battery storage. Better than gasoline but nowhere near as good as pure battery electric.

    1. Hydrogen vehicles are EV vehicles…

      EV means electric vehicle which “only” refers to the electric motor not the energy storage method.

      They are called BEV (Battery) and FCEV (Fuel Cell) but both are EVs and you also miss one key important fact. Fuel Cell Hydrogen vehicles also use a Lithium Ion battery cell that gets charged via the Fuel Cell constantly to keep the car running.


      Electric motor + Battery


      Electric motor + Battery + Fuel Cell + Hydrogen Tank

      Pure battery electric are simpler and the only difference is the battery is bigger to carry more energy capacity since it runs purely on stored electricity. Also, pure battery electric storage is 2x more energy efficient than hydrogen creation and electricity from fuel cell because of all the steps it uses to convert energy.

      BEV is the future, not FCEV

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