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Dangers of All Electric Forklifts

Worker loading pallet with a propane forklift into a truck.

There’s been quite the debate on propane forklifts lately. People are getting concerned with the dangers of intense regulation. What started as an attempt to push zero-emission forklifts turned into a radical statement by the California Air and Resources Board (CARB) calling for a potential ban of all internal combustion forklifts. If successful, starting in 2025 it would be impossible to purchase or lease a forklift that has an internal combustion engine. Any engine more than 13 years old would be forced into retirement. For some small businesses these requirements could extend to 2030 and engines of 18 years or older before phasing out. However, CARB is still in the process of defining what qualifies as a small business. In other words, any business could be included with the 2025 regulations. The only option remaining will be electric forklifts. Let’s dig into the very important negative impacts of this proposal.

 

Forklifts Today

To start off, let’s look at the implications of what an internal combustion ban would create. There are over 314,000 internal combustion forklifts in use in California today. That’s thousands of businesses. The very forklifts that are running without issue today would have to be scrapped or altered to support a different system. Not to mention a monetary impact on the individual to make this adjustment. Forklifts are expensive!

 

Environmental Impact

Despite being the buzz word of the week, “electric” isn’t without negatives. When you take into consideration the full life cycle of forklifts, electricity starts to look less attractive. In a study by OSTI, the US Department of Energy, Office of Scientific and Technical Information, they found that NG steam cycle batteries used over 17,500 BTU/kwh fossil energy during its fuel cycle, the majority of which was for energy conversion. That’s quite a number for something trying to be zero. Not to mention, in a recent study done by PERC, they were able to calculate the lifecycle emissions comparing electric forklifts and propane forklifts when marginal grid emissions were taken into account. While electric had 794 CO2eg emissions (where gCO2/kwh) in its lifecycle, by using renewable propane we see that number drop to a staggering 270. While non-renewable propane saw more emissions than that, it’s clear that electric isn’t everything.

Now when considering nitrogen oxide (NOx), electric forklifts saw 0.35 lifecycle emissions per kWh. Compared against propane, which is sitting pretty at 0.17 lifecycle NOx emissions. The kicker? Renewable propane brings that number down even further to 0.13. The “zero-emission” forklift is a great goal, but not possible today or in the near future. The dangers electric forklifts pose to the environment should not be ignored. While internal combustion might sound scary, it’s actually the best option we have now. By using propane instead of other fuel sources, we can cut emissions and achieve realistic clean energy goals. Not to mention, in a study conducted by the Social Science Research Center at California State University Fullerton, they found current forklift owners and operators had some important reservations about changing to electric forklifts.

Cost

Cost is always a big question. It’s not just the initial start up costs, we have to consider maintenance too. The average 5,000 lb. cushion propane forklift is between $24,000-30,000. The equivalent for an electric forklift is a bit steeper, sitting at $35,000-40,5000. The cheapest electric forklift is on average more money than the most expensive propane forklift for equivalent models. Another important consideration for electric forklifts are the storage, charging facilities, and additional battery costs. Check out how these can quickly add up by using this handy tool:

PERC COST CALCULATOR

To add more on this list, battery powered electric forklifts have an estimated life of 10 years and on average are retired 50% earlier than the same forklift running on propane. Let’s dig in a bit deeper. Propane forklifts, provided they have fuel and are in good working condition, will run without issue. Once out of fuel, it’s quick and efficient to refuel and get back to work. Batteries are bit more particular. To recharge your electric forklift takes about 8 to 10 hours on average. And then, because the battery heats up during that charging time, it must cool off for another 6 to 8 hours. At minimum, that’s 14 hours of forced inactivity, at most it’s 18 hours.

While there are faster options for recharging, these shorten the lifespan of the battery. A battery that would last 5 years will be shortened to 3 by utilizing fast charging methods. On top of this, batteries aren’t entirely safe all of the time. When used with safety precautions in place they can work great, but if handled incorrectly they can create a leak in hydrogen that is very flammable and explosive, cause chemical burns if sulfuric acid or electrolyte is released, and, as with most things electric, there’s also a potential for electric shock and burns.

 

Keep Propane Forklifts

An internal combustion engine is not inherently bad. Yes, gasoline and diesel can be harmful pollutions and contribute large amounts of emissions. However, there are good alternatives to these. While propane also fuels internal combustion engines, the environmental impact is vastly different. It’s a clean energy source, and that’s not just from us in the propane industry. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 cemented propane as a viable alternative fuel.

The ban would also go a step further by eliminating the use of hybrid forklifts. These have been a wonderful middle ground for businesses incorporating more electric use while keeping the efficient duty cycle of liquid fuel. Especially when paired with Thin Plate Pure Lead Acid batteries, which have an established recycling supply chain, the carbon footprint doesn’t see a big impact, unlike other batteries that create more hazardous waste.

We appreciate CARB attempting to make the future greener, however we also understand that achieving this requires multiple solutions. Pushing all-electric in all aspects of life is not feasible and could end up having a more negative impact than they expect. Like all good things, the way forward will be best together. Keep propane forklifts, they are worth their weight in non-emissions.

It’s time to protect your propane forklift. Reach out to CARB today:

zeforklifts@arb.ca.gov

 

Employee driving a forklift giving a thumbs up