Chain of Thought

Fuel Cell Forklifts Overpowering Cars in Practicality

The Obama administration has awarded $1.26 billion in matching grants toward the construction of plants dedicated to making batteries for electric cars. According to the Wall Street Journal, the goal was to create 6,400 jobs. To date about two thirds of that money has been spent and less than a third of those jobs have been created. These grants were tied to aggressive production goals.

One battery maker that built a plant using $55 million of its $118 million government grant has since gone into and come out of bankruptcy. And even though it came out of bankruptcy, it only employs 250 of the 1700 workers anticipated when the grant was made.

There's a faint whiff of Solyndra here—you know, the solar energy firm that received a federal loan under the 2009 stimulus law and then went bankrupt.

The problem with these ventures was they weren't based on real market demand. So maybe the best thing that ever happened to makers of hydrogen fuel cells was the Administration's diversion of grant money from fuel cells to electric batteries three years ago. Since then there have been great strides in fuel cell developments, especially on the lift truck side of the market. Real companies have made these strides despite naysayers who are convinced there's no payback in the cards.

Andy Marsh is quick to debate the naysayers. He's CEO of Plug Power, providers of fuel cell power units for lift trucks, and his company and its customers are already enjoying paybacks. He says there are paybacks for both new and existing operations.

“In a new facility, the payback through improved productivity can be realized as soon as the building is operational,” he told me recently. “In an older facility, where you're converting the electrical infrastructure and battery facility to a hydrogen based system, the payback can be in as little as six months to as long as 18 months, depending on the facility's number of trucks and operational hours.”

Ask for examples and he'll rattle off names like Walmart, P&G and Kroger. These are big companies with deeper pockets to afford this initial investment, but Marsh says the costs for fuel cell materials are coming down and will make them more affordable for smaller companies.

He notes that his company has an exclusive relationship with Ballard to provide the membrane and other stack components.

“We believe they provide us with the best price performance available in the market and will continue to do so,” he said. “As far as other components are concerned, with our volumes continuing to ramp up, suppliers are aggressively competing for our business on price and availability.”

That's good news for forklift fleet managers eyeing the fuel cell industry. But according to a recent article in Slate, Energy Secretary Steven Chu is starting to feel friendlier about fuel cells for the automotive industry. It quotes John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell USA and the incoming chairman of the Energy Department's technical advisory committee on fuel cell vehicles, as saying that Chu “made supportive remarks about the potential for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles while speaking at a recent, closed event.”

Remember the joke about the nine scariest words in the English language? “I'm from the Government and I'm here to help.”

Don't make room in your garage just yet.

Related Editorial:

Savings along the Road to Sustainability

Lift Trucks—For Real

Making Sense of Power Sources

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