Forestry is an important part of sustainability. However, this work often relies on inefficient, fossil fuel-powered equipment, leaving it with a significant carbon footprint. Hydrogen fuel cells could provide a way forward.
Fuel cell-powered heavy equipment is relatively new, but the field is expanding rapidly. This trend could pave the way for more sustainable forestry, ensuring these operations don’t cause more environmental problems than they solve.
Powering Industrial Vehicles
The most important application of fuel cells in forestry is replacing gas and diesel engines in industrial vehicles. Medium and heavy-duty vehicles account for 26% of all transportation emissions, the largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S. Swapping conventional trucks, skidders, excavators and other heavy equipment for green alternatives would result in a considerable drop in forestry’s carbon footprint.
Battery-electric alternatives could offer the same emissions reduction, but hydrogen is a better choice for these industrial applications. Hydrogen engines typically last longer between refueling, which vehicles out in the forest need. It’s also easier to scale up hydrogen power compared to lithium batteries, which have performance issues on larger scales.
Another advantage of hydrogen fuel cells is these vehicles’ instant power delivery and torque. Hydrogen motors have far less power loss than combustion engines, helping them perform better, especially in sub-optimal conditions. That’s an important advantage for tools that must compensate for uneven terrain like forestry equipment.
While options for fuel cell-powered industrial vehicles are limited today, that may not be the case for long. Construction equipment company JCB is currently testing a hydrogen engine for backhoes and similarly sized vehicles. The manufacturer is also developing larger hydrogen vehicles, like a fuel cell-powered excavator. Other companies like Hyundai, SANY and New Holland are developing hydrogen equipment as well.
Providing Clean Plug-In Energy
Hydrogen fuel cells can also provide clean electricity for smaller plug-in equipment. Forestry initiatives may use drones to plant trees or electric hand tools like chainsaws. Since these worksites are often located far away from grid power, these tools rely on fossil fuel-powered generators — but fuel cells offer a greener alternative.
Portable fuel cell generators have already seen use at events like the Le Mans auto race and Lollapalooza Paris, highlighting their reliability. Like conventional generators, they provide plug-in power where no grid energy is available, making them ideal for forestry. However, unlike traditional options, they also produce no harmful emissions.
Hydrogen generators also run silently, helping create safer working conditions. While they’re comparatively expensive today, they will become more affordable and accessible with further technological development.
Challenges Remain, But Hydrogen’s Potential Is Promising
Hydrogen energy in forestry still isn’t perfect. Fuel cell heavy vehicles and generators are relatively rare and are often considerably more expensive than their fossil fuel counterparts. However, those issues will fade as more companies invest in this technology. More hydrogen models will come to market and grow cheaper as fuel cells become more efficient.
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Forestry must move away from fossil fuels to be truly sustainable, and hydrogen provides the ideal path forward. As these technologies become more accessible, they could transform the sustainable forestry industry.
Jane Marsh, Contributor
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