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Fuel cells power food operations

Sandra Curtin and Jennifer Gangi of the US Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association describe how fuel cells are providing power for a variety of food industry applications.

Fuel cells produce energy through an electrochemical reaction that uses hydrogen. This combustion-free technology is available today to power a range of applications. With low-to-zero emissions, depending on fuel feedstock, and the additional benefits of high efficiency, reliability and scalability to any power need, fuel cells are now finding a niche powering various operations for food manufacturers.

What is a fuel cell?

Fuel cells, first created in 1839 by the UK’s Sir William Grove, were a mainstay in America’s space programme for fifty years, powering Gemini and Apollo rockets and the Space Shuttle. Fuel cells have since moved from outer space to everyday applications.  Large fuel cells now act as power plants, located onsite to supply electricity, and in some cases, heating and cooling, to large buildings, office complexes and manufacturing facilities; smaller fuel cells power portable, off-grid and mobile applications, such as cars and forklifts. 

Fuel cells use hydrogen, either directly or reformed within the system. When operating on pure hydrogen, in applications such as cars, forklifts and backup power, there are no greenhouse gas emissions. The only by-products are electricity, heat and water. 

When using natural gas to power buildings and production facilities, the emissions are so low that several US states exempt fuel cells from air permitting requirements.  The use of biogas can reduce life-cycle emissions to near zero. 

Many food operations have adopted the use of fuel cell technology, with thousands of fuel cells now supplying power to processing facilities and bakeries, helping to move stock in warehouses and providing reliable energy to supermarkets. They are doing so because of the many benefits of fuel cells: 

  • Exceptionally reliable and efficient.
  • Capable of providing 100% power for as long as fuel is present, even in conditions down to -22oF
  • Virtually silent, reducing noise emissions.
  • Scalable, so that by stacking individual fuel cells together, you can generate as little or as much power as needed.
  • Fuel cells operate in water balance, with most fuel cells only requiring less than a gallon per megawatt-hour (MWh).
  •  Independent operation from the grid, allowing business operations to continue when grid power goes down.

These attributes allow both stationary and mobile fuel cells to be operated indoors or out and permit stationary fuel cells to be sited on rooftops, in basements or adjacent to buildings. 

Colruyt’s renewable hydrogen station and fuel cell forklift.

Photo courtesy The Colruyt Group

Food processing

Keeping daily operations running efficiently and seamlessly in a processing, production or packaging/bottling facility requires a reliable source of power.  Many companies in the US food industry are turning to fuel cells to provide electricity, and in some cases, heating and/or cooling to production sites.  The list is long and includes such household staples as Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Pepperidge Farm, The Wonderful Company, and many more.

These companies are finding savings on multiple levels, including emissions reductions, energy costs and water use.

Utilising waste as a source of fuel can further increase savings. Many food and beverage processing facilities, such as wineries, and breweries, produce organic waste matter daily. This waste is costly to remove and burdensome to store.  One of the technologies being used to convert waste into a usable gas stream is anaerobic digestion. The resulting gas includes hydrogen, which may be purified and used to power a fuel cell, which then generates electricity and heat for the plant. If the fuel cell is configured to capture the excess heat, known as a combined heat and power (CHP) system, the efficiency can be as high as 90%.

This is not a new idea.  In the late 1990s, several Japanese breweries used the effluent from the brewing process to produce biogas for their fuel cell systems.  Other breweries in Germany followed suit. In the US, this process has gained traction in a number of installations at food processing plants and wineries. 

Gills Onions, an onion processor in Oxnard, California, installed a 600kW fuel cell system in 2009 to utilise biogas generated from the 300,000 pounds of onion waste it generates per day. The fuel cell powers the facility and provides some of the heat for the conversion process.  Gills not only has lowered electricity costs, but has saved money on waste removal. The company also sells the leftover pulp as cattle feed. 

Looking further ahead, researchers are generating hydrogen from tempeh and tofu processing waste[1] and have investigated sources, such as peanut shells[2] and even candy[3]. A winery in California is already using naturally-occurring bacteria and a small amount of electricity to extract hydrogen from the wastewater it generates from wine making.

Fuel cell system supplying power and thermal output to a Coca-Cola bottling facility in Elmsford, New York.

Photo courtesyDoosan Fuel Cell America

Distribution centres

Fuel cells are well-suited for low-temperature operation in refrigerated storage facilities and freezers, making the technology ideal for moving food products in supermarkets, food service distributors and food processor operations. Today, more than 16,000 fuel cell-powered forklifts operate in US warehouses, including many in food logistics operations – Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters, Newark Farmer’s Market, Sysco, Walmart, Wegmans, Whole Foods Market, and many more.

These companies are taking advantage of the strong business case for fuel cells, which includes cost, performance and productivity benefits. The US Department of Energy (DOE) reports that, compared to battery forklifts, fuel cells have a lower total cost of ownership, an 80% lower refueling labour cost, and take up 75% less warehouse space compared to battery charging infrastructure[4]. The fuel cell cost advantage per unit is increased by $2,000/year per forklift for the average high-use facility[5].

Additional benefits include meeting or exceeding performance requirements in sub-zero warehouse temperatures, delivering constant power during the shift with no performance lags and refueling in minutes using a hydrogen dispenser. Since there is no need to change a battery for recharging, operator down time is significantly reduced and valuable warehouse space used for battery storage can be returned to active use.  DOE reports that fuel cell-powered lift trucks operating on hydrogen made onsite from natural gas have about 33% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than lift trucks powered by batteries or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

Over the past year, three European companies have announced plans to add fuel cells to their forklift fleets, adding up to more than 400 fuel cell units.

  • The Belgian grocery chain Colruyt is expanding its demonstration fuel cell forklift fleet from 13 to 200 at its Halle, Belgium, facility.  The company produces its own hydrogen onsite, using renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels located at the distribution centre.  The hydrogen station is also equipped with a fuel cell system that produces power when energy production from the wind and solar resources is low.
  • Prelocentre, a French logistics service company that focuses on the fruit and vegetable market, expanded its original 35 fuel cell forklifts at its Orléans facility to 46 units in 2016, with plans to increase to 60 fuel cell units in 2017. The company saves an estimated $337,000-$450,000 a year in equipment costs due to the elimination of the battery storage, charging and changing room.
  • French retailer Carrefour, which owns one of the largest hypermarket chains in the world, has purchased more than 150 fuel cell units to be deployed in Class II and III electric lift trucks at its new distribution centre located in Vendin-lès-Béthune, France.  
  • The use of fuel cells goes well beyond forklifts. The US DOE is currently funding a demonstration project to determine the feasibility of fuel cell-powered refrigerated transport units (TRU) to replace diesel-powered internal combustion engines, currently used on trucks transporting refrigerated and frozen products.   

  • Fuel cells are well-suited for low-temperature operation in refrigerated storage facilities and freezers’


    Grocery stores are intensive energy users. After labour costs, energy costs are the most significant portion of the annual operating budget for the grocery retail sector. In a typical US store, refrigeration and lighting comprise about 80% of total electricity use and space heating accounts for 68% of natural gas use[6]

    Most of this energy is delivered through traditional power generation, with a significant portion of the energy lost as heat.  But this waste heat can be turned into useable energy through the use of CHP, where electricity is produced onsite and the exhaust heat is captured for the provision of heat, hot water and cooling. By providing more efficient energy use, CHP fuel cells have the potential to reduce electricity and natural gas costs for a facility.  US grocery chains Whole Foods Market, Stop & Shop, Haggen, Safeway and Price Chopper operate fuel cell systems at several of their retail stores, generating 50-95% of the necessary power and heat onsite. 

    The high reliability of fuel cells makes them an attractive power generation technology for businesses that customers rely on.  By producing power onsite, fuel cells ensure continuity of power generation, allowing a grocery store to remain open to shoppers when grid power loss has closed down other businesses. This helps protect refrigerated and frozen foods from spoilage and waste and eliminates the need to send out a backup generator to power critical loads, store fresh items in a refrigerated truck, or to pack goods in dry ice to preserve them. 

    There are several real-world examples to point to.  During Superstorm Sandy (October 2012), fuel cell systems kept grocery stores in Colonie, New York and Middletown, Connecticut, up and running, supporting critical operations for 5-6 days when grid power was completely down. Another fuel cell provided a Torrington, Connecticut, grocer with power, heat and cooling when grid power was intermittent due to the storm.  In 2011, a San Diego, California, grocery store equipped with a fuel cell was one of the few businesses operating during a grid blackout.

    Besides these impressive capabilities, fuel cells emit almost no pollutants, allowing them to be exempted from air permitting requirements. Other than an initial injection of water into the system, fuel cells also consume no water during operation, saving on water costs.

    Other food businesses are using fuel cells to lower emissions. Global cold storage provider for the fish and agricultural industries, Americold, operates a 600-kW fuel cell system at its Salinas, California, warehouse to lower its electricity costs and cut greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel cell supplies 5.4 million kilowatt hours of clean and reliable power annually.

    Benefits attributed to a fuel cell system at a Price Chopper supermarket in Colonie, New York

    Courtesy Doosan Fuel Cell America


    Fuel cells are proving themselves to have applications in various sectors of the food industry. The benefits are exceeding expectations, with several companies making installations at multiple sites and some utilising fuel cells to power facilities as well as forklifts at their distribution centres.

    Tomorrow, the potential is extremely exciting. Demonstrations and early deployments at farms and food processing plants are showing the feasibility and value of using biogas from animal and other waste to produce onsite power for fuel cells extending the range of applications. If fuel cells can take us to the moon and back, the possibility of creating a zero-emission food supply chain is not science fiction – it is becoming science fact.

    Sandra Curtin  and Jennifer Gangi, the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, 1211

    Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 650, Washington DC, 20036, USA

    Tel: 202-261-1337



    Sandra Curtin and Jennifer Gangi lead communication efforts at the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association in Washington, D.C., an industry association comprised of leading companies and organisations that are advancing  fuel cell and hydrogen energy

    technologies.  FCHEA drives support and provides a consistent industry voice to regulators

    and policymakers. Our educational efforts promote the environmental and economic benefits of fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies. Sandra and Jennifer focus on U.S. and international developments in the industry ( and also author four annual fuel cell reports ( for the U.S. Department of Energy.










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