French energy company Engie and retail multinational Walmart opened a green hydrogen plant at the Quilicura distribution centre in Chile at the end of last week as part of an initiative to replace lead-acid batteries in forklifts with fuel cells.

Stay ahead on hydrogen with our free newsletter
Keep up with the latest developments in the international hydrogen industry with the free Accelerate Hydrogen newsletter. Sign up now for an unbiased, clear-sighted view of the fast-growing hydrogen sector.

Walmart reveals to Hydrogen Insight that a key driver for moving away from any kind of battery to power forklifts at the distribution centre was to increase efficiency.

“We are moving away from lead-acid batteries to reduce the time our associates spend on the battery charge process, which we expect will now improve up to 80%,” a company spokesperson said.

“Lithium-ion batteries require that the machines be connected for recharging, which also reduces overall direct productive time,” the spokesperson added.

However, while much less time will be spent charging, the overall efficiency gain throughout forklift operations is expected to be only around 5% compared to traditional lead-acid battery operations, the spokesperson confirmed.

Walmart first started using hydrogen-powered vehicles and forklifts in the US in 2012, growing its fleet from an initial 50 to 9,500 today as part of a long-standing agreement with Plug Power.

Engie also claims that the shift towards fuel cells for 200 forklifts at the distribution centre on the northwestern edge of Santiago will result in less toxic waste. While lead-acid batteries last up to five years and are commonly recycled, this can result in environmental or human exposure to lead.

As such, Engie estimates that replacing these lead-acid batteries will avoid the production of 250 tonnes of toxic waste per year.

First industrial-scale in Chile?

Engie has described the $15m project as the country’s first renewable hydrogen plant “on an industrial level” and previously announced it would draw on 3GW of co-located solar PV.

However, the French firm and Walmart confirm to Hydrogen Insight that the electrolyser, supplied by Denmark’s Green Hydrogen Systems, is only around 600kW in size.

This is around half the size of the 1.2MW electrolysis capacity used by the Haru Oni plant in the southernmost Magallanes region, which started producing its first litres of renewable hydrogen-based e-fuels in December 2022.

Walmart also clarifies that the electricity used by the electrolyser will be drawn from the distribution centre, using a renewable power purchase agreement to buy solar energy.