Plug Power’s Hydrogen Electrolyzer Drives Amazon Forklifts
A 1 MW electrolyzer will produce hydrogen for hundreds of fuel cell-equipped forklifts at an Amazon fulfillment center. Here’s how it works.
New York-based Plug Power, a hydrogen technology developer, has commissioned a 1 MW electrolyzer at an Amazon fulfillment center in Colorado. As the first deployment in the e-commerce giant’s on-site hydrogen supply expansion, the system will produce low-carbon hydrogen to power over 225 fuel cell-propelled lift trucks, with additional support for up to 400.
Plug Power’s electrolyzer system is powered by solar panels and other renewables. Image used courtesy of Plug Power
Amazon and Plug Power previously worked together to replace forklift batteries with over 17,000 fuel cells across dozens of North American fulfillment centers as part of Amazon’s pledge to decarbonize its operations by 2040. The new electrolyzer will bring production directly on-site. At most locations currently, the hydrogen destined for forklifts is produced elsewhere, then liquified and delivered by truck to a storage and dispensing system on site. However, with Plug Power’s system, the output will be compressed at the fulfillment center and stored in a gaseous hydrogen storage tank when forklift operators need it.
Amazon’s fleet is increasingly electrified, with more than 10,000 Rivian electric delivery vehicles across the U.S. It plans to add thousands more by 2030. However, switching some of its heavy equipment to fuel cells offers unique benefits for its fulfillment centers and warehouses, including higher efficiency and reduced costs associated with lift truck operator productivity, battery room floor space, or time spent on charging. Plug Power claims its hydrogen fuel cells increase vehicle range by more than 150% compared to batteries. They can be placed in the vehicles’ existing battery space.
Plug Power’s hydrogen supply model. Image used courtesy of Plug Power
Hydrogen Electrolyzer Technology
Plug Power’s proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer splits water into oxygen and hydrogen via electrolysis. Its modular GenFuel systems are flexible for sub-MW to 10 MW operations, producing up to 4,250 kilograms of on-site hydrogen daily.
Generally, hydrogen is cleaner than high-emitting fuel sources like diesel and gas, making it promising for corporate customers pursuing sustainability goals. Hydrogen’s only emission is water vapor during combustion. However, it isn’t completely emission-free because hydrogen production is only as clean as the electricity used in the process. Most of the world’s hydrogen is made from fossil fuels via steam and methane, based on natural gas.
Green hydrogen deployments like Amazon’s electrolyzer use electricity from solar panels or wind turbines. According to Amazon’s latest sustainability report, about 90% of its electricity consumption comes from its global base of more than 400 renewable energy projects totaling 20 GW. The company has installed 164 wind and solar farms and 237 rooftop solar projects across its sites.
Powering Hydrogen Fuel Cell Forklifts
Hydrogen produced by the electrolyzer will support existing refueling infrastructure and fuel cells at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Aurora, Colorado. Plug Power designed, installed, and commissioned the electrolyzer and hydrogen storage system and will provide continued maintenance. Plug Power’s on-site model allows customers to use surplus electricity from renewables to produce and store hydrogen while avoiding emissions from liquifying and transporting the supply between sites.
In 2022, the company previously agreed to supply 10,950 tons of green hydrogen annually (starting in 2025) for Amazon’s transportation and building operations. The contract would provide enough power for 30,000 forklifts or 800 long-haul trucks. At that time, Amazon had outfitted 70 fulfillment centers with hydrogen storage and dispensing systems to power over 15,000 fuel cell-propelled forklifts. Plug Power’s on-site electrolyzer model will assist in this expansion.
Plug Power’s fuel cell stack. Image used courtesy of Plug Power
Meanwhile, Plug Power is ramping up its electrolyzer and fuel cell production at its gigafactory in New York, facing a growing pipeline of near-term projects topping 7.5 GW. In its third-quarter 2023 results, the company mentioned plans to expand its PEM stack manufacturing capacity beyond 2.5 GW annually. By 2030, this could unlock an additional 4 GW and 200,000 fuel cell stacks annually.