Plug Power and FedEx make a little dent in airport’s carbon footprint

Tugger tractors use fuel cell technology to move cargo around on tarmac
Plug Power systems engineer Rob Tracey refuels a FedEx airport cargo tugger equipped with a Plug Power hyrdrogen fuel cell.
Plug Power systems engineer Rob Tracey refuels a FedEx airport cargo tugger equipped with a Plug Power hyrdrogen fuel cell.

LATHAM — The tuggers that haul baggage and cargo around airport tarmacs have provided new insight into the future potential of fuel cells.

Plug Power, the Latham-based manufacturer of the hydrogen-powered electric generators, provided an update recently on its field trials with FedEx. The parcel delivery company last year tested 15 of fuel cell-equipped tugger tractors at the airport in Memphis, where FedEx has its flight hub and headquarters.

When the trial was complete, FedEx moved two of the tuggers up to its much smaller operation at Albany International Airport, where they performed well in much colder weather.

Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh and multiple speakers at a Thursdaydemonstration hailed the FedEx experience as further indication that hydrogen will play an important role in the fight against climate change with alternative fuels.

A guest speaker was U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, a longtime proponent of using energy efficiency and technology to slow climate change.

“We have climate crisis, we have precious little time to waste and we need to move forward aggressively,” he told the group, adding that fuel cells will be one way this happens.

Fuel cell devices rely on proton exchanges between oxygen and hydrogen on opposite sides of a membrane; the reaction creates heat, water and electricity, but no carbon emissions.

Plug has been developing, manufacturing and marketing fuel cells for nearly a quarter century, and while it has yet to turn a profit, it has been growing steadily: It now has more than 600 employees, reported $174 million in net revenue in 2018, has built more than 28,000 fuel cells, and is the largest user of liquid hydrogen in the world.

The company is in the tough position of having to not only design, make and sell a good product but to create a market for it. One reason why this is difficult is that there’s almost nowhere to refuel a fuel cell when it runs out of hydrogen. 

Plug will sell refueling stations to its customers, and resupply their holding tanks, but beyond that filling stations are few and far between.

So Plug Power’s customer base has been companies that move vehicles around a limited area, where one fueling station could serve all the vehicles, such as in a warehouse or dense urban environment. Or an airport.

The 15 tuggers FedEx used at Memphis are stock electric tractors made in Virginia by Charlatte America, except that their batteries were replaced with a ProGen unit built by Plug Power. During the demonstration period, they towed up to 50,000 pounds in all weather for thousands of hours with zero emissions and showed that hydrogen powered vehicles and their fueling station were safe to operate in an airport environment.

When the test was over in late 2018, FedEx added enclosed cabs to two of the tuggers and moved them up Albany International Airport, a stone’s throw from Plug Power’s headquarters. Here they’ve performed in temperatures ranging from 4 to 91 degrees, and on 41 days with subfreezing conditions, an important milestone in the field tests. FedEx decided to keep them on duty here after the tests ended June 30.

FedEx has also retrofitted one of its local delivery trucks operating out of Menands with a Plug Power system, and run it 20,000 miles so far. The goal was a 150-mile range, Plug Power systems engineer Rob Tracey said, and it has been averaging 160 miles between fill-ups.

Michael Hahn, a U.S. Department of Energy project manager, said the field testing has provided important data to the hydrogen fuel industry. The DOE, he said, views hydrogen and fuel cells as part of the nation’s energy future. The hope is that successful test projects like the FedEx/Plug Power tuggers will lead to additional applications, wider adoption, and lower fuel price as the hydrogen infrastructure expands.

The DOE has been working with Plug for 20 years, and was involved in the tugger demonstration as well. It will continue to fund research and development in hydrogen and fuel cells, Hahn said.

Albany County Airport Authority CEO John O’Donnell said management is keenly aware of the need to cut the carbon footprint of the airport, where about 100,000 gallons of fuel is pumped into planes and ground operations vehicles every day. The authority has installed solar panels and added natural gas-powered buses, he noted, adding that the fuel cell tuggers are one more part of the equation.

Other speakers, including Marsh and Tonko, noted that there is no single solution to climate change — many things can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and all are needed to make a noticeable impact. Fuel cells have their place beside batteries, biofuel and other technologies, each more or less suitable than the next, depending on the application.

Batteries are probably the biggest competitor to fuel cells, Marsh said, but the two are optimal for different applications. “There is a continuum,” he said. “All of them are in the mix.”

Tonko, former head of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, helped refuel one of the tuggers Thursday at the pump in front of the Plug’s office/factory complex. 

For all the sophistication of the equipment pumping out the hydrogen and receiving it, the fueling process is quite simple, familiar to anyone who has ever had a propane tank refilled for a backyard grill: connect a thin-cord data link, lock a heavy nozzle onto the filler port, push the green button and listen to the whoosh as hydrogen flows into the tugger at 6,000 psi pressure.

A loud peep indicated the job was done.

“That’s it?” Tonko asked.

“Yep,” Tracey answered.

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