Greening in the Warehouse

Brett Wood, president of Toyota Material Handling USA (TMHU), says there is a green awareness in the material handling industry he hasn't seen before. “Customers are asking us questions about emissions,” he says, and adds he is encouraged so far by market acceptance of green lift trucks.

Local and federal tax incentives — offered for replacing older lift trucks with newer, cleaner models — may be driving some interest for those looking at the bottom line. However, side benefits of going green, including productivity, reduced operating costs and smaller vehicle designs, are also catching attention of cost-conscious end users.

“The market has started investigating green lift trucks,” agrees Calvin Tanck, vice president of marketing at Hyster. “But, as there is no green standard or definition, this will be an evolutionary acceptance, as technologies that both improve productivity and enhance the bottom line will be delivered with better utilization of existing and future power sources.”

First Stop: Electric

When many manufacturing and distribution facility managers consider moving to green, they first think about electric lift trucks. That's a natural reaction. “Based on Industrial Truck Association (ITA) numbers, 56% of all lift trucks sold in the US from January to November 2007 were electric powered,” says Wood.

There's good reason for the growing demand for electric lift trucks. They do not produce emissions, such as carbon monoxide. They make little noise. And, they are generally smaller, so they can maneuver in narrow aisles.

Clean IC

Still, Wood believes internal combustion (IC) lift trucks shouldn't be left out of the green game. TMHU offers its 8-Series IC lift truck, available with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) powered engines, all of which produce 70% less smog-forming emissions than allowed by current federal standards, according to Wood. The new trucks' 4Y engines use closed-loop fuel systems that automatically adjust air-fuel mixture ratios. With the help of the lift trucks' three-way catalytic mufflers, hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide emissions are minimized, according to the company. TMHU's 8-Series diesel model meets EPA's more-stringent Interim Tier 4 regulations. They emit 26% less particulate matter than currently required 2008 Tier 3 standard.

Hyster Co. also offers low-emission IC lift trucks that are CARB 2010 compliant, according to Tanck. The company looks beyond fuel sources, too, to find other ways to reduce waste generated from operating lift trucks. For example, Tanck says Hyster was “an early innovator with AC technology, which offers better power usage and less parts wear.” In addition, “we see our advanced transmission technology as a way to reduce tire and brake wear, which corresponds to less waste.”

Fuel Cells

Though electric lift trucks have zero emissions, there are still some drawbacks, including environmental hazards associated with the disposal of lead-acid batteries.

Additionally, batteries take time to recharge, are prone to voltage drops as power discharges and cause downtime during battery changeouts, says the US Department of Energy Hydrogen Program, an organization dedicated to increasing adoption of fuel-cell technologies. The federal program offers a tax credit up to $1,000/kW for the use of fuel cells in material handling operations.

According to the organization, “Fuel cells can be rapidly refueled, eliminating the time and cost associated with swapping batteries. The voltage delivered by the fuel cell is constant, as long as hydrogen fuel is supplied. Using fuel-cell powered lift trucks can boost productivity by eliminating trips to the battery-changing station. With no chargers, battery storage or changing areas or equipment needed, more warehouse space is available.”

Real-World Trials

Fuel cells are getting a lot of interest thanks to numerous trials currently being conducted by some of the biggest players in the material handling industry.

Three of the most recent newsworthy trials include the Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge; beta trials conducted by Plug Power Inc., at two Ohio-based Wal-Mart DCs; and a Raymond Corp. two-year study conducted in partnership with the New York Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the New York State Power Authority (NYPA).

The Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge — a collaborative effort among the City of Columbia, SC; the University of South Carolina; EngenuitySC; and the South Carolina Research Authority — supports deployment of fuel-cell and alternative energies through private-sector grants.

Hydrogenics Corp. of Mississauga, Ont. and Columbia, SC-based LiftOne, division of Carolina Tractor, have signed a distribution agreement and are receiving funding from the Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge to deploy hydrogen fuel-cell powered lift trucks at several manufacturing facilities and DCs in the state.

Hydrogenics is conducting fuel-cell trials. It is currently engaged in a two-year study of 19 fuel-cell powered lift trucks at General Motors of Canada. Hyster Co. is working with Hydrogenics on electric fuel-cell lift truck implementations at General Motors and FedEx, according to Tanck.

Canadian Cellex Power Products Inc. — acquired in 2007 by Latham, NY's Plug Power — has completed field testing of 12 Cellex CX-P150 fuel-cell powered rider pallet trucks at two Ohio Wal-Mart DCs.

Working in continuous operation for more than 18,500 hours, the pallet trucks, supplied by Crown Equipment Corp. and Nissan Barrett, met and exceeded uptime, fueling, environmental and safety targets, Cellex reports. Pallet truck operators refueled the trucks more than 2,100 times. Refueling took less than two minutes per truck. The indoor fuel-dispensing area required only 200 sq ft of space, compared to 4,000 sq ft for a lead-acid battery room, the company says.

A two-year Raymond Corp. project that began January 2007 is currently testing the performance of hydrogen fuel cells in lift trucks in a real-world plant environment. Raymond's Greene, NY, manufacturing plant is being used as a “living laboratory for fuel-cell technology,” said Chuck Pascarelli, Raymond's vice president of sales and marketing.

At a $1.2 million price tag, the Raymond project is the largest of 11 green projects being conducted in New York. The state has set a goal to reduce its energy use 15% by 2015, notes Gunnar Walmet, program director of the Industry and Buildings Research and Development program at NYSERDA. “There is no single silver bullet that will replace fossil fuels,” he says. “We must look at a portfolio of solutions, one of which is hydrogen.”

Despite the material handling market's evolving interest in green lift trucks, there will always be naysayers who claim the move to green is nothing more than one big publicity stunt by manufacturers and end users.

However, if environmental — and bottom-line — benefits really do exist in the real world, does the underlying motivation matter?

Referring specifically to fuel cells, TMHU's Wood says: “We will be selling lift trucks being powered by something different. That is exciting for us as an industry.”

Mary Aichlmayr is editor-in-chief of our sister publication, Material Handing Management.

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