Recently, The United States Postal Service (USPS) implemented a pilot project to determine the operational and financial impacts of switching its powered industrial vehicles (PIVs) from lead-acid batteries to hydrogen fuel cells. PIVs used included forklifts, tow motors, and pallet jacks. The battery systems negatively impacted productivity due to their extended charging times, short lifespan, and intensive labor time required to charge them. While the battery systems decreased emissions compared to engines powered by fossil fuels, they posed an additional health risk due to their sulfuric acid content.
Under the pre-pilot system, the lead-acid batteries had to be swapped out three times per day due to their 8-hour run time per charge. For every 8 hours of runtime a battery offered, it had to undergo 16 hours of downtime; 8 hours to recharge and 8 hours to “cool down.” This required each PIV to have three batteries to maintain a 24-hour uptime schedule. Batteries take approximately six to eight minutes to change over.
The goals for the USPS study fell into two main categories; operating costs and sustainability. The Washington NDC wanted to explore hydrogen fuel as a lower-cost alternative to battery-powered PIVs. They theorized that reduced time swapping out batteries and reduced electrical consumption would lead to decreased operation costs. However, they wanted to maintain the emissions-free operations of the current BEVs.
Upon completion of the year-long study, the USPS found that switching to hydrogen-powered forklifts had a significant impact on productivity and operating expenses. PIV operator productivity increased by 27%, realizing labor savings of approximately $3.9 million. In spite of slight increases in maintenance labor hours ($182,000), and equipment costs ($19,000), the USPS found a net decrease in overall operating costs due to increased productivity.
The decreased labor costs came as a result of increased uptime made possible by the hydrogen-powered forklifts. The hydrogen fuel systems required less operator time to recharge/refuel and did not require batteries to be swapped out every eight hours.
The overall financial impact of the study revealed that switching the Washington NDC industrial vehicle fleet to hydrogen fuel cells generated substantial cost savings compared to the startup investment. After the one-year pilot program, the Washington NDC found that its initial $3.45 million investment could yield $18.8 million in operational savings over five years and generate 107% ROI in just under two years.