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Tina Casey headshot

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

By Tina Casey

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 Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey