- Nov 30, 2020 5:22 pm GMT
For Rodney De Fouw, who manages electric transportation programs at the utility Great River Energy, the winter cold in the area bordering Lake Superior is more than just an uncomfortable reality or an interesting bit of trivia. He knows that one of the biggest barriers to commercial and industrial customers using electric equipment is skepticism that it will operate reliably in northern Minnesota’s harsh weather conditions.
“In Minnesota north of Lake Superior, where it’s cold to the bone, the largest barrier is cold weather and outdoor performance,” said De Fouw.
Customer concerns about electric equipment are rooted in past experiences with electric forklifts powered by lead-acid batteries that would sometimes not start or charge in extreme cold or during rain and snow. While newer lithium ion phosphate batteries perform better in cold temperatures, many customers continue to be wary.
A desire to dispel those customer concerns led Great River Energy to participate in an electric forklift demonstration spearheaded by EPRI. The project will deploy high-capacity forklifts (those that can move loads of 11,000 pounds or more) and monitor their operations, energy use, and battery performance. Southern California Edison (SCE), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and Southern Company are funding and participating in the demonstration.
As part of the demonstration, Great River Energy will provide an electric forklift to the Two Harbors, Minnesota–based Louisiana-Pacific Building Products manufacturing plant, which produces trim and siding for buildings. “The forklift will be used to load the trim and siding products onto rail cars,” said De Fouw. “We are interested in the cold weather performance of the lithium ion batteries and the energy consumption and economics of the forklift compared to the propane and diesel-powered forklifts that are the norm.”
A Proven Technology
Interest in high-capacity forklifts is growing in large part because of the proven reliability and economic and environmental advantages of smaller electric forklifts compared to diesel and propane versions.
“These smaller forklifts are typically able to lift and move about 5,000 pounds and are used in warehouses by companies like Walmart, Amazon, and FedEx,” said Baskar Vairamohan, principal project manager in EPRI’s Electrification program. Companies such as Komatsu, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and CLARK manufacture electric forklifts of this size.
According to a study by the market research company Grand View Research, in 2019 about two-thirds of the $49.6 billion global market for forklifts was electric, with the remainder powered by internal combustion engines. The same study said that the forklift global market is expected to grow 12.1% each year between 2020 and 2027—driven significantly by the needs of e-commerce companies—and that the large majority of forklifts sold will be electric.
The advantages of electric forklifts over propane- and diesel-powered models are significant. “The operations and maintenance costs are lower because they have fewer moving parts and don’t require oil replacements or routine maintenance,” said Vairamohan. “Electric motors last 15 to 20 years—much longer than the 5- to 10-year lifetime of internal combustion engines. Electric forklifts eliminate tailpipe emissions, which can result in poor air quality, especially when forklifts are operating indoors.”
Quantifying the Benefits
A publicly available EPRI calculator compares the costs and emissions of electric, diesel, and propane forklifts with lift capacities ranging from 5,000 to 12,500 pounds. While the capital cost of an electric forklift with a 5,000 pound-capacity is about $34,400, the cost of 5,000-pound-capacity propane and diesel versions are about $24,200 and $25,100, respectively.
The economic picture changes dramatically over 72 months of operation. Assuming the forklifts run 8 hours a day and 5 days each week, operations and maintenance costs for an electric forklift are $1.25 per hour, compared to $2 per hour for the propane and diesel machines. As a result, the cost of energy for an electric forklift over 72 months is $57,488, compared to nearly $87,000 for a propane forklift and more than $95,000 for a diesel model. This translates into energy savings of more than $29,000 compared to propane and more than $37,500 compared to diesel.
In addition to eliminating tailpipe emissions, indirect emissions of electric forklifts—in other words, emissions associated with generating the electricity used to power the units—are significantly lower than the emissions of propane and diesel units and will continue to improve as the grid adds more renewable energy. Based on today’s grid in the U.S., EPRI estimates that over 72 months, the carbon dioxide emissions of a 5,000-pound-capacity electric forklift is 126,000 pounds less than the emissions of a 5,000-pound-capacity propane-powered forklift and almost 160,000 pounds less than the emissions of a diesel-fueled forklift.
In 2021, EPRI plans to expand the features of its calculator to enable comparisons of high-capacity forklifts able to move loads as heavy as 60,000 pounds. While the market for smaller electric forklifts is well-established and growing, a big challenge for the larger vehicles is price.
“You go from a 5,000-pound electric forklift, battery, and charger that cost about $35,000 to a 40,000-pound vehicle that can be close to $400,000 when it is customized to meet the requirements of the buyer,” said Vairamohan. By contrast, 40,000-pound diesel and propane forklifts size can cost between $100,000 and $150,000. The demonstration project will provide more clarity about the payback time for high-capacity electric forklifts. Vairamohan estimates that the payback is four years or less.
Another barrier is lack of experience with high-capacity electric forklifts among commercial and industrial customers.
Recently, TVA has demonstrated to customers the value of switching from small internal combustion forklifts to small-capacity electric forklifts. “We were able to change their thinking and show them why electric is better for their bottom line and for the environment, including the indoor environment where you can eliminate fumes and noise,” said Jason Snyder, a TVA manager who leads efforts to educate the utility’s customers about the benefits of electric technologies. “I believe that many of the large manufacturers and perhaps paper mills in our service territory could benefit from the use of high-capacity electric forklifts. I don’t think any of them have had experience with the heavy electric forklifts.”
As part of the EPRI-led demonstration, a metal manufacturer in TVA’s service territory is using a high-capacity electric forklift free of charge for six months. EPRI and TVA are monitoring energy use and will use the data to provide a cost comparison to the internal combustion forklifts that the manufacturer currently uses. Perhaps just as important, the project is giving operators hands-on experience to dispel any concerns about electric forklifts.
“What are the things that would cause them to say electric wouldn’t work?” said Snyder. “It’s not really about being electric. It’s about the size of the fork and any turning radius problems or whether it has problems when you use it in the rain because people think electric and water don’t mix. This is a way to take away that fear by giving people a way to test and prove it themselves. With a demonstration research project like this one, we address that fear by giving people a way to test and prove its merits to themselves.”
This article appeared in an issue of EPRI's Efficient Electrification newsletter. To sign up to receive future issues, visit: https://www.electrificationcommunity.com/contact-form.
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