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Zero-Emission Forklifts

Maxim Khabur
By Maxim Khabur Marketing Director, OneCharge

Regulations to curb CO2 emissions are being introduced every year for a range of industries. Being able to make a smart switch from diesel-, propane-, or gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) forklifts to zero-emission forklifts can yield numerous benefits.

The efficiency of forklift battery charging has reached a point where a lithium-battery-powered electric forklift can be “opportunity charged” for five to 15 minutes, enabling it to keep working through multiple shifts. And electric forklifts can be fully charged within two hours, dramatically improving the efficiency of operations.

Zero-emission forklifts are more expensive up front than ICE-powered trucks. However, depending on the application, the total cost of ownership is 20–40 percent lower within two to four years, given the higher maintenance, labor, and fuel costs associated with ICE forklifts.

Lead-acid vs. Lithium Electric Forklift

Any electric-powered forklift generates zero emissions after it is produced, benefiting the environment, and providing superior efficiency. A 48-volt electric forklift featuring a 700-AH battery capacity saves about seven metric tons of CO2 per year from entering the atmosphere when compared to a similar diesel-powered forklift. This is calculated based on a five-day-a-week operation with one eight-hour shift. This means that three-shift operations will yield an offset of at least 21 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually from just one truck. And that’s not the end of it.

Lead-acid (Pb) forklift batteries have a single advantage over lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries—they’re cheaper to purchase. However, due to their lower charging efficiency, traditional Pb batteries use about 30 percent more electricity than new lithium units.

Lithium batteries increase forklift utilization rate and uptime, providing maximum availability with shorter charging times.

New, lead-acid batteries top out at about 63 percent energy conversion efficiency, while that of Li-ion forklift batteries is significantly higher, at 90–95 percent. This difference in efficiency opens the door to significant energy savings when using lithium batteries over comparable lead-acid batteries, which also reduces your utility bill.

Electricity generation typically produces carbon emissions, the amount of which varies from country to country and from energy source to energy source. For example, coal-burning generators are the worst carbon emitters, while renewable energy from solar or wind generators is zero-emission. Reduced electricity consumption leads to reduced electricity generation, and therefore reduced CO2 emissions. Any electric forklift will have significant emissions savings over a fossil-fuel-powered forklift.

With Li-ion batteries, drivers can plug in their forklift whenever they have a break, and it’s ready to go when they get back to work. The maintenance of lithium forklift batteries does not require the watering or charge equalization associated with lead-acid forklift batteries. This further reduces the overall cost to operate electric zero-emission forklifts.

The lifespan of a Pb-based battery is about one-third to one-fifth of that of a Li-ion system. And, unlike a lithium battery, a lead-acid battery cannot be reused in secondary applications once it reaches end of life in a forklift.

Fuel Cell

A fuel cell uses hydrogen that reacts with oxygen to generate electricity and water. Because it does not release greenhouse gases in its reaction, fuel cells (teamed with small batteries) are also considered to be a zero-emission energy source. Although they can be efficient, there are serious concerns to consider when thinking about choosing hydrogen fuel cells over lithium forklift batteries.

Heat. During the conversion process that moves hydrogen ions through the electrolyte to the oxygen, heat is produced. How much heat? Enough that fuel cells, especially larger ones, are typically designed with cooling systems to help prevent the heat from causing a malfunction. Combined with flammability, it’s easy to see why heat can be a problem, especially in the refrigerated or freezer sections of your warehouse.

High equipment cost. The catalyst used to move the hydrogen ions to the oxygen consists of platinum. This is an expensive metal, comparable to gold, depending on the metals market.

Commercial viability. Setting up a hydrogen fueling station in a facility costs $8,000–$10,000, followed by monitoring and hydrogen delivery costs of about $800 per month. This expense makes hydrogen fuel cell technology feasible only for facilities that have 12 trucks or more.

Lack of infrastructure and competition. Though many manufacturers are pursuing the development of hydrogen fuel cell systems, there is insufficient infrastructure to provide enough cheap hydrogen, and support the regular servicing, maintenance, and repair of these efficient forklifts.

High expense. Maintaining and repairing hydrogen-fueled forklifts come at a higher cost. The efficiencies and economies of this new technology have not yet been optimized. Fuel-cell mechanics and technicians are still hard to find, and an underdeveloped infrastructure means that suppliers can raise prices.

Net-Zero Warehouse

For net-zero warehouse operations, you’ll want to look at lithium forklift batteries paired with renewable electricity. When your zero-emission forklifts are powered by renewable energy, such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric power, you’re moving toward a net-zero operating emission reality.

The goal is to use renewable energy as your warehouse’s source of electricity for lighting, HVAC systems, forklift charging, conveyors, lifts, and other equipment.

Government Incentive Programs

You may be able to use these operational improvements to claim a range of incentives in the form of energy credits, rebates, and refunds from multiple federal and state programs, such as Clean Off-Road Equipment (CORE) and Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). This can make the transition to a net-zero warehouse more affordable for your business.

At the same time, you can get ahead of the curve if your state is considering limitations on new ICE forklift sales. California, for example, plans to ban the sale of new non-zero-emission forklifts starting in 2026.

Through careful consideration in selecting zero-emission forklifts, you can help your business operate in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Better air quality and reduced noise levels contribute to improved employee health and wellness, while lower operational costs and compliance with government regulations yield tangible financial benefits.

By choosing lithium-ion forklift batteries and considering the impact of on-site renewable energy systems to charge them, you can ensure that your forklift fleet will operate effectively long into the future.

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