Fuel feud

"Fuel cells are best suited for intensive duty cycles that would be compromised if battery charging were required," Jan-Willem van den Brand, Hyster
"We are doing a lot of testing... we want to make sure that this equipment can work and can do what it needs to do," Chris Cannon, Port of Los Angeles
"We need to advance technology and have commercial availability of these varying types of equipment and heavy-duty trucks," Gene Seroka, Port of Los Angeles
Pushing boundaries: Hyster is piloting hydrogen fuel cells. Credit: Hyster
Pushing boundaries: Hyster is piloting hydrogen fuel cells. Credit: Hyster
Among friends: Capacity is just one original equipment manufacturer involved in clean air pilots at LA. Credit: Port of Los Angeles
Among friends: Capacity is just one original equipment manufacturer involved in clean air pilots at LA. Credit: Port of Los Angeles
Plugged in: emissions equipment pilots at LA have focused predominantly on electric over fuel cells. Credit: Port of Los Angeles
Plugged in: emissions equipment pilots at LA have focused predominantly on electric over fuel cells. Credit: Port of Los Angeles

Which emission-free fuel solution will win out in the yard, asks Alex Hughes

There’s a battle taking place on the dock, and for once it’s not labour related. Instead, a war is being waged against fuels burned by quay equipment that don’t expect to make the switch to electric. Should operators plump for hydrogen fuel cell retrofits or could a switch to a different clean fuel make more sense?

The Port of Los Angeles says it is "agnostic" in respect of whether hydrogen fuel cell technology is adopted by operators, or whether another clean fuel ultimately wins out. What matters is achieving its goals of near zero (NZE) or zero emissions (ZE). So, the port authority is not advocating one technology over another; instead, it wants the supply chain and the overall market for technology to decide what technologies are in play, which might mean that a combination of several is eventually adopted by the port.

The Ports of Los Angeles (POLA) and Long Beach (POLB) have together outlined a draft Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) that outlines a new set of aggressive near-term and long-term strategies to further reduce harmful air pollution from all port-related sources. It also aims to assist the state in meeting ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals and will ultimately achieve zero emissions for trucks and terminal equipment.

Pushing boundaries

“POLA and POLB are going where no port has gone before,” says POLA executive director Gene Seroka. The draft 2017 CAAP looks at ways of confronting harmful emissions from port-related sources, including vessels, HGVs, cargo handling equipment, locomotives and harbour craft.

Christopher Cannon, director of environmental management at POLA, says that while “commercially available” zero emissions equipment is in the market place, not all of it is necessarily “operationally viable”.

The port, he stresses, is looking for NZE/ZE equipment with a proven duty cycle performance at an acceptable cost. Crucially, there would also have to be post-purchase support in place, which he defines as including sufficient warranties; the easy availability of maintenance service and parts; along with reasonable repair times; and the loan of replacement vehicles during downtime.

“This is the reason why we are doing a lot of testing,” he says. “We want to make sure that this equipment can work and can do what it needs to do.”

On the road

In terms of road haulage vehicles, POLA is working with a variety of manufacturers to develop NZE/ZE vehicles to replace existing diesel-powered units. But as Mr Cannon points out, while commercially available vehicles do already exist, their cost remain prohibitive.

“The costs are still high, because this type of vehicle is not yet on the production line. Current prices range from $300,000 to $600,000, compared to an on-the-road diesel truck which costs $125,000,” he says.

Just nine NZE/ZE road haulage vehicles are currently active at the port, of which seven are battery-driven and one powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Significantly, of the 45 upcoming trials involving such vehicles, Mr Cannon notes that 35 will feature electric batteries and just four fuel cells.

As for yard equipment, NZE/ZE providers to date include TransPower, US Hybrid, Orange EV, Taylor, Hyster, Kalmar, Autocar and Capacity.

“Future ZE and NZE OEMs are anticipated [entering the market],” he says, while the port has also reached out to Terberg in respect of a possible ZE terminal tractor development.

Price point pinch

ZE yard tractors are in various stages of development or trialling. However, while all are “commercially available”, the cost, like that of road vehicles, is still significantly expensive. Units are priced between $225,000 and $450,000, while a Tier 4 diesel unit has a price of just $110,000.

Furthermore, Mr Cannon argues that post purchase support remains limited and varied, while most manufacturers have only limited production capacity. “The question remains as to whether these units also have sufficient range and power, although they are performing reasonably well with less demanding duty cycles [than would be the case in a port environment],” he says. “But these vehicles are beginning to work.”

He confirms that Kalmar is working on a zero emissions yard tractor, using TransPower’s systems, as part of the Port’s Pasha Green Omni Terminal.

However, both POLA and POLB are already doing relatively well in terms of NZE/ZE mobile yard equipment. Between them they have 57 AGVs active, two terminal tractors and 17 fork-lift trucks (FLTs). To be added to these shortly as grant-funded projects are a further two FLTs, 32 terminal tractors and 4 top handlers/sidepickers.

Ed Renwick, the commissioner of the Los Angeles Board of Harbour Commissioners, notes that getting a viable ZE top loader would be “transformative”. However, Mr Cannon points out that existing duty cycles work against easily achieving this.

“A top loader has to be able to both stack and transport containers,” he says, which is a big ask for battery power.

Nevertheless, in the next 18 months, two Taylor and two Hyster prototypes are to undertake trials at POLA. Taylor has teamed up with BYD to produce a prototype with a 1MW battery, which Mr Cannon labels “outrageously big”, pointing out that this will allow it to operate over two shifts.

Mr Seroka is under no illusions about manufacturers’ abilities to provide the type of NZE/ZE equipment POLA and POLB are looking for. In terms of road haulage, he notes: “The three largest truck manufacturers are putting very little money into this area, concentrating instead on autonomous vehicle technology."

Focus on batteries

Michael Eckle, director global marketing, innovation, IP and M&A at Conductix-Wampfler says that the company’s focus is purely on batteries, battery management and power management. In container yards, the company’s battery technology currently powers rubber-tyred gantry cranes and AGVs, where two solutions are offered. The first involves a continuous power connection during normal operations, such as lifting, and a power supply provided purely by batteries for block change and travel when no continuous connection is available.

The second is a hybrid eRTG, which uses a battery to power horizontal and vertical activities and a small generator (typically diesel) to recharge the battery when needed. Current batteries last around ten years, says Mr Eckle, with the very first batteries ever produced by the company now celebrating three years in front line operations. “Battery recycling is still not fully resolved. The main elements needing recycling are the battery cells. Many cell suppliers have initiatives to take cells back for recycling or refurbishment,” he says.

Asked whether hydrogen or battery is more cost effective, he says that it is not possible to make a comparison at this stage. “However, I don’t think we should be talking about either batteries or fuel cell, but rather a combination of both,” says Mr Eckle.

Fuel cells, he adds, are expensive, especially when it comes to large power generation. However, batteries can provide power when needed, at peak times and also during lifting. Fuel cells can also provide constant charging power to refill batteries.

One of the important benefits of batteries is their ability to store recovered energy, for example from the lowering of containers, which is something fuel cells cannot do. “In respect of fuel cells, there are also currently problems surrounding the availability and storage of hydrogen,” adds Mr Eckle. 

Charging cycle

Jan-Willem van den Brand, Hyster’s director for big truck product strategy and solutions says that hydrogen fuel is expected to be used by Hyster’s Big Truck division as a range extender - to charge batteries so that the truck can be powered electrically.

“Performance and driveability is expected to be at least equal to a comparable diesel engine powered truck,” he says.

Comparing fuel cell and battery technology, he notes that hydrogen fuel cell refill time is almost the same as filling a fuel tank with diesel, while re-charging batteries can take hours.

“The electrified Hyster Laden Container Handler we are developing will not run directly with power from the fuel cell; instead, the fuel cell is used to charge the battery while the truck is in use,” says Mr van den Brand.

Asked which technology best suits a typical container yard environment, he notes that a terminal tractor moves only horizontally in a very controlled manner, and with some idle time. Therefore, with this type of truck power, consumption is relatively low, perhaps 3-4 litres per hour. Conversely, a lift truck moves horizontally as well as moving loads vertically. This takes quite some power, given that the machine needs to be stabilised with weight. In general, this type of equipment can use 15-20 litres per hour, with high peak loads of power demand.

“This is where a fuel cell can come in, as it can provide the required shift life alongside acceptable battery dimensions. However, it completely depends on the specific application. For example, in a low duty application with the possibility for opportunity charging during a shift, a fully electric, battery-powered truck may be the most suitable choice,” he says.

Battery life

In terms of battery life when compared against that of a fuel cell, Mr van den Brand says it depends on the application, the battery type and the fuel cell. Battery life also varies depending on how charging is managed.

Fuel cell life also depends on the control strategy and managing power demand fluctuations. However, it is possible for fuel cell life to be the same or better than the first life of diesel engines. Second life usage for both fuel cell and battery is rapidly developing.

As for which is easiest to subsequently recycle, he claims this depends on battery type and also whether the owner wants to re-use it in a different application, or simply recycle the battery.

And as to which technology is most cost effective, Mr van den Brand says this varies depending on many factors, including the application, the cost of energy, peak power usage limitations and infrastructure requirements. However, he suggests hydrogen fuel-cells can bring flexibility in two ways.

Firstly, fuel cell filling station usage does not need to be planned, as it does with a diesel truck. With battery powered machines you need to plan which truck can be charged, when, at what station and for how long. This adds complexity to the logistic planning system. For example, what happens if one charging station is out of service?

Secondly, hydrogen helps control peak power demand. If all diesel-powered equipment in the ports is replaced by electric power, all of these will need to be charged. In this case, the peak power demand can be huge and significant investment will be required to cope with this demand.

Looking at areas where both technologies could still be improved, he notes that, “In the future, there may be a demand in the industry for smaller, lighter batteries with higher energy density for heavy-duty applications. Fuel cells require a higher manufacturing volume to become more competitive on a first cost acquisition basis.”


In order to help achieve emissions goals set out in policy documents such as the CAAP, the various US West Coast ports have banded together and made a combined approach to manufacturers to provide more and better NZE/ZE equipment, in what has been labelled the “market maker concept”.

“Ports are a real market,” says Los Angeles’ Gene Seroka, pointing out that the joint approach has been made to industry “to show them they have a customer base that is worthy of consideration in terms of investing in NZE/ZE technology.”

But he is under no illusions that this is not going to be a cheap option: “We need to advance technology and have commercial availability of these varying types of equipment and heavy-duty trucks. Well capitalised corporations are therefore going to be the key to our future success in this area.”


But are both batteries and fuel cells really zero emitters of emissions, or are there “hidden” emissions? Hyster’s Jan-Willem Mr van den Brand insists that both vehicles with fuel cells and battery powered trucks have true zero emissions. However, crucially, the fuel cycle (“well-to-wheel”) emissions will depend on how electricity or hydrogen is generated, he concedes.

Conductix-Wampfler’s Michael Eckle says that there are some emissions in the production of batteries. It also depends on how the batteries are charged, in other words, how the electricity is generated at source. Nevertheless, he points out that a combination of fuel cells and batteries could really be considered emission free.

New technology can succeed or fail depending on the return on investment it generates, so which is better: batteries or fuel cells? In terms of return on investment, Mr Eckle says that for batteries it depends on the application and the cost of electricity for charging. “In our battery applications, we aim for a ROI of 2-3 years,” he says.

According to Mr van den Brand, ROI heavily depends on the application. “Fuel cells are best suited for intensive duty cycles that would be compromised if battery charging were required,” he says.

Looking at reliability, he again says this completely depends on the application. “Both can prove reliable and dependable power sources if coupled with the right choice of truck for the specific operation’s needs.”


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