Demonstrating the benefits of electric forklifts

For Rodney De Fouw, member electrification strategist at 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 one of the biggest barriers to commercial and industrial (C&I) members adopting electric equipment is skepticism that it will operate reliably in northern Minnesota’s harsh weather conditions.

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 couldn’t be used in outdoor applications due to rain and snow. While newer electric forklifts include lithium ion batteries that are protected from the elements and perform better in cold temperatures, many members continue to be wary.

Interest in high-capacity electric 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.

A desire to dispel those concerns led Great River Energy to participate in a high capacity electric forklift demonstration spearheaded by the Electric Power Research Institute (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.

As part of the demonstration, Great River Energy and Cooperative Light & Power 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,” De Fouw said. “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.”

One of Great River Energy’s focus areas the last few years has been “electrifying” certain parts of the economy — using electricity in ways traditionally powered by fossil fuels such as natural gas, propane, gasoline and diesel — to reduce carbon emissions on its system. The cooperative set a goal to reach 50% renewables by 2030 which makes the electricity used to power forklifts, electric vehicles and similar equipment in its service territory increasingly less carbon intensive over time.

Interest in high-capacity electric 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. The advantages of electric forklifts over traditional 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 Baskar Vairamohan, principal project manager in EPRI’s electrification program. “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.”

To boost interest in electric forklifts, Great River Energy created its own “try before you buy” program that allows C&I members interested in the technology an opportunity to rent the equipment for a month and see how it fits into their business. Four trials of this program have been conducted to date, resulting in the sale of three electric forklifts to participating businesses.

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December issue of the Electric Power Research Institute Efficient Electrification newsletter.