A large hardware cooperative is using GenDrive hydrogen fuel cell units from Plug Power Inc to power materials handling equipment in Wilmer, Texas, and soon in West Jefferson, Ohio.
Dirk DeYoung, facilities engineering manager for Oak Brook-based Ace Hardware Corp, says: "We want to see how Texas and Ohio operate for a year" before considering using fuel cells elsewhere. "We won't budget anything for 2015 but, if we are happy with the (Texas and Ohio) results, we may look to do more in 2016."
Each of Ace's 14 US distribution centres operates about 65 materials handling units, generally with an equal division among narrow-aisle, three-wheel stand-up and pallet-rider forklifts. Across all distribution centres, the Ace fleet is about a 60-40 split between Crown Equipment Corp and Raymond Corp.
In 2008, Plug Power, of Latham, New York, approached Ace about testing fuel cell technology at Ace's Rocklin, California, distribution centre, near Sacramento.
"We agreed to three-month tests of five fuel cells in pallet riders" at Plug Power's expense, DeYoung says. "We did time studies, checked on refuelling requirements and found everything (was) favourable. The cost, however, was prohibitive at that time."
A more favorable situation exists in "a green-field project where you can avoid putting in a battery room and a battery charging system", he says.
Two or three years ago, Ace began planning for two distribution centres to be build six months apart in Texas, near Dallas, and Ohio, near Columbus, to replace existing centres in those markets.
"The fuel cell issue resurfaced," DeYoung says. "We saw benefits with a two-minute refuelling versus 10-15 minutes to change out batteries." Ace determined it is possible to achieve a fast return on investment - two to three years - if it avoids the need for battery rooms.
Arrangements were made with Plug Power and Nuvera Fuel Cells Inc, of Billerica, Massachusetts.
Nuvera retains ownership of and installs portable onsite hydrogen reforming equipment, monitors the equipment from its headquarters and charges Ace a monthly fee. "If the equipment is down, they are obligated to truck in hydrogen," DeYoung says.
Plug Power and Nuvera technicians are on call as needed, and the suppliers have conference calls at least weekly with Ace. "Ace wants to partner with these folks, have a win-win situation and make sure we are communicating with them," DeYoung says.
Ace bought new materials handling equipment units from Raymond, of Greene, New York, for the 450,000 sqft. (41,805 sqm) Texas centre and from Crown, of New Bremen, Ohio, for the 534,000 sqft. (49,609-sqm) Ohio facility, which is nearing completion. "Both (suppliers) are supportive of fuel cell applications," DeYoung says.
Previously Ace relied exclusively on 36-V batteries, typically using the Deka and EnerSys brands to power forklifts, but the Texas and Ohio distribution centres found that accounted for 30% of their total monthly electricity bills.
Looking ahead, DeYoung believes the California distribution centre and one in Gansevoort, New York, near Albany, "would be good candidates" for using fuel cells. Ace would convert existing forklifts to fuel cell technology and would"need to operate simultaneously (with battery and fuel-cell-equipped forklifts) during the conversion" in those locations, he says. An ongoing motivator remains the high cost of energy in California.