Our world is focusing intently on reducing emissions, and one way many industries are addressing this issue is by choosing zero-emission forklift options. Additional regulations to curb CO2 emissions are being introduced every year for a wide range of industries. Making a smart switch from diesel, propane, or gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) forklifts to zero-emission forklifts can make a big difference in your operations.
While the benefits to your business are numerous, it can be difficult to choose between the various options available on the market. In this article, we’ll discuss what a zero-emission forklift is, what options are available, and how to help your operations get closer to achieving net-zero goals by pairing zero-emission forklifts with renewable energy resources.
The world economy needs to reduce carbon emissions by 15 percent every year through 2040 if the world is to have a real chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to climate scientists, a 1.5°C increase is a limit required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and there is no shortage of negative or even catastrophic scenarios if we fail to achieve these goals.
WHAT IS A ZERO-EMISSION FORKLIFT?
Zero-emission forklifts generate no emissions. They are typically electrical, but other technologies include hydrogen fuel cells, which we’ll also discuss here. Zero-emission forklifts provide a wide range of benefits in your warehouse: superior air quality and low noise levels lead to better employee health and wellness; lower operational costs and compliance with government regulations yield tangible financial benefits.
Some estimates show that zero-emission forklifts can reduce a company’s operational costs by up to 75 percent. These estimates are calculated by comparing the energy-efficient machines to same-size propane-powered forklifts, and the price of propane at US$2.20 per gallon and electricity at US$0.12 per kilowatt-hour. A simple formula is used to calculate the battery capacity needed to switch from LPG to lithium battery forklift fleets.
The efficiency of forklift battery charging has reached a point where a lithium-battery-powered forklift can be opportunity-charged for 5-15 minutes to keep working through multiple shifts—or it 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 can be 20–40 percent lower within 2–4 years given the higher maintenance labor and fuel costs associated with ICE forklifts.
What kind of zero-emission forklifts do you want to use in your warehouse? Some are more expensive and more efficient; others require a complicated supply chain to service and power. It’s important to understand the basic differences between various types of zero-emission forklifts before you commit to buying them for your warehouse operation.
LEAD-ACID VS. LITHIUM ELECTRIC FORKLIFT
Any electric-powered forklift generates zero emissions after it is produced, benefiting the environment. Electric forklifts provide superior efficiency. A 48V electric forklift featuring a 700AH battery capacity saves about 7 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 lead to an offset of at least 21 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually from just one truck; and that’s not the end of the benefits.
Lead-acid forklift batteries have a single advantage over lithium batteries: they’re cheaper to purchase. However, due to their lower charging efficiency, they use about 30 percent more electricity than lithium batteries.
When new, lead-acid batteries top out at about 63 percent energy conversion efficiency, while that of lithium 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.
Generating electricity 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 lithium batteries, drivers plug in their forklift whenever they have a break, and it’s ready to go again 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 lead-acid battery is about one-third to one-fifth the lifespan of a lithium battery. Unlike a lithium battery, it cannot be reused in secondary applications once it has reached the end of its life.
A hydrogen fuel cell essentially uses hydrogen, which reacts with oxygen to generate electricity and water. Because it does not release any greenhouse gasses in its reaction, it is also considered to be a zero-emission energy source. Although they can be very efficient, there are some serious concerns to take into account when choosing hydrogen fuel cells over lithium forklift batteries. These include:
- Heat. During the conversion process that moves the 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 another concern, 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 a very expensive metal; its price is comparable to gold, depending on the metals market.
- Commercial viability. Setting up a hydrogen fueling station in a facility costs US$8,000–US$10,000, followed by monitoring and hydrogen delivery costs of about US$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, the infrastructure to provide enough cheap hydrogen and to support the regular servicing, maintenance, and repair of these efficient forklifts is insufficient.
- High expense. Maintaining and repairing hydrogen-powered forklifts generally comes at a higher cost. The efficiencies and economies of this new technology have not been optimized yet. Fuel-cell mechanics and technicians are still relatively rare, and an underdeveloped infrastructure means that suppliers can raise prices.
GOVERNMENT INCENTIVE PROGRAMS
For net-zero warehouse operations, you’ll want to look at lithium forklift batteries paired with renewable electricity. When your zero-emissions forklifts are powered by renewable energy such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric power, you’re moving toward a net-zero operating emission reality. The ultimate goal is to use renewable energy as your warehouse’s source of electricity for lighting, HVAC systems, forklift charging, conveyors, lifts, and other equipment.
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. The state of California plans to ban the sale of new non-zero-emission forklifts starting in 2026.
Through careful consideration before selecting your zero-emission forklifts, you can ensure that you are making a smart choice for your mill so that your company can operate in a more efficient and sustainable manner. By choosing lithium 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.