Can Propane-powered Forklifts help Decarbonize Warehouses and Factories?

April 11, 2022
Carbon emissions in supply chains are, on average, four times those of a company’s direct operations. Forklift fleets are often the workhorse of these operations

By Joe Calhoun, Propane Education and Research Council

Forklifts are an essential piece of equipment for any warehouse, distribution center, or production facility. With the challenges facing material handling operations today—labor shortages, rising energy costs, increase in demand—choosing the right energy source for a forklift can have a big an impact on an operation and the environment.

Supply chains contribute significantly to a company’s carbon footprint. In fact, carbon emissions in supply chains are, on average, four times those of a company’s direct operations. Forklift fleets are often the workhorse of these operations, and using propane powered forklifts creates an opportunity for warehouses and distribution centers to significantly improve their carbon footprint.

Propane equipment ensures sustainable, low-carbon operation

Propane is a clean, low-carbon alternative energy source and, when used to power forklifts, can reduce sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions by 76 percent compared with electric equipment and nitrogen oxide (NOx) and hydrocarbon emissions by 94 percent compared with diesel models, according to the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).

PERC published a research paper, Fork(lifts) in the (Off) Road: Should We Ban Internal Combustion Engines for Electric?, that compares the lifecycle emissions profiles of propane and electric-powered forklifts. Findings show that in most states, propane forklifts are the cleaner option compared with electric forklifts, especially when considering marginal electric grid emissions.

The case for internal combustion engine (ICE) forklifts becomes even stronger with hybrids and renewable fuels. In fact, nearly all propane ICE forklift technologies emit extremely low criteria pollutants compared to the regulatory standards.

The analysis used available engine certification emissions data published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study presented the following scientific findings:

 ·        A truly zero-emissions forklift does not exist.

·         Hybrid electric forklifts, when paired with both conventional and renewable fuels, emit less CO2 than battery-electric forklifts in well-to-wheel emissions, according to fuel consumption data from the EPA equipment certification database and renewable propane's carbon intensity.

·         For most states, NOx emissions from propane-powered forklift engines can be less than half that of battery-electric forklifts powered by the electric grid.

·         314,000 ICE forklifts are operating in California alone. Replacing all ICE forklifts in the state with battery-electric forklifts would require nearly 10 GWh/day of additional charging capacity.

This is important as forklift managers across the US work to navigate new emissions requirements for Class 4 and Class 5 forklifts. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is pursuing a ban on all equipment that uses diesel, propane, natural gas, and gasoline—and mandating the use of battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric forklifts only.

Propane’s edge over electric comes down to electric’s full-fuel-cycle emissions including those produced in the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of electric forklift batteries, as well as the generation and distribution of electricity.

Propane’s low-emissions profile allows equipment to safely operate indoors (in properly ventilated environments) and outdoors. In fact, well-maintained propane forklifts meet or exceed nationwide indoor air quality standards.

When selecting a forklift energy source, companies making the choice between electric and propane-powered equipment often rely on the fact that electric equipment produces zero emissions during operation but tend to overlook its full emissions profile, which includes well-to-wheel emissions. Propane produces significantly fewer lifecycle emissions than both diesel and electric and is the best choice for businesses interested in reducing their carbon footprint.

Going green doesn’t have to break the budget

Many companies that are looking to reduce emissions have noticed that it can sometimes come with a higher price tag. With propane forklifts, companies can reduce emissions more cost effectively than other energy sources. 

Propane forklifts offer cost savings throughout ownership. The capital costs of propane-powered forklifts can be up to 30 percent lower than those for electric, when factoring in the equipment needed for battery recharging. Propane helps avoid these extra expenses, saving money for other line items like new employees, additional training, or business development, to name a few. Businesses operating on propane may also be able to lock in a mutually beneficial fuel contract with their local propane supplier for more savings and financial peace of mind.

While the duty cycle of forklift applications varies, one 33-pound propane cylinder will power a forklift for an entire eight-hour shift. An equivalent battery-electric lift often does not last a full eight hours of continuous use. Propane forklifts are also 90 percent efficient versus about a 25-30 percent energy efficiency of electricity from generation to distribution.

Propane continues to be the best energy choice for material handling professionals. Propane forklifts’ ability to work around the clock and reduce emissions, while keeping costs in check, are just a few reasons that business owners count on them to get the job done.

About the author: Joe Calhoun is director of off-road business development for the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at [email protected].