You hear it all the time whenever hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) technology comes up — “it’s been five years away for the past 30 years.” A little self-deprecating humor can do wonders for the soul, but reality has been that HFC technology has made significant progress in preparing for mass adoption by the public. As our CEO Andy Marsh noted at his speech to the newly created Hydrogen Council at this year’s World Economic Forum, the HFC industry has never been in a better position to fulfill its potential than it is today.
Often, coverage around HFC adoption can get hung up on how many fuel-cell vehicles (FCV) are on the roads. It’s not hard to understand why- much of the historical hype around HFC has been focused on the potential of fuel cell vehicles, making FCV adoption the measure of success for industry observers. But while FCV automotive adoption has not hit escape velocity yet when it comes to mass adoption, that does not mean HFC technology isn’t trending upwards with electric vehicle adoption. At Plug Power, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the use of HFC-powered electric material handling vehicles, most notably forklifts, with more than 14,000 units now deployed in the field in the US & Europe. And what’s more, the bulk of this adoption has been by major customers with global reach- including companies like Walmart, BMW, and most recently Amazon.
This isn’t to pat our own backs, though I’m very proud of the work our company has done in helping drive increased adoption of HFC solutions. Rather, it helps illustrate that there is now a blueprint for driving increased adoption of HFC technology. There has been tangible cost reduction in the development and maintenance of fuel cells over the past several years — Plug Power itself has achieved nearly 70 percent cost reduction over the past four years. This cost reduction has largely been driven by engineering innovations as well as the increased volumes we’ve seen in the material handling market, and we see a lot of potential in these gains helping elevate adoption of hydrogen solutions across the industry.
Most importantly, the benefits of HFC technology in warehouse operations are tangible from the outset. In some distribution centers the storage space needed for the lead-acid batteries that power most electric material handling vehicles can range anywhere between 3-5,000 sq. ft. Elimination of that battery room offers distribution warehouses more space for organizing their inventory. Additionally, downtime with HFC-powered vehicles is nearly erased, going from a traditional lead-acid recharging process that can last more than 12 hours to a refueling process that takes no more than three minutes and is as simple as filling up your car at a gas station. Factor in other benefits such as easier maintenance and reduced environmental hazards, and all of a sudden you’ve got a warehouse operation that’s 15% more productive and making work life easier for everyone involved!
Certainly, a lot of this can feel like déjà vu to industry observers who have been buying into HFC technology over the past 15-20 years. But having been part of a HFC provider that has seen the outstanding growth of the hydrogen solutions market in recent years, I’m confident that the industry is ready to proliferate across the globe. And with it, industrial operators and managers will be able to reap the full benefits the technology has to offer them.