As companies look to transition away from carbon fuels for their vehicles, fuel cell technology could be the next step

While last week’s meeting of the ‘global elite’ at Davos was full of rhetorical flourishes on the need to combat climate change, a silent revolution is happening across the food and drink sector. And it is gaining momentum. Fast.

Under cost and sustainability pressures like all industries, retailers are increasingly looking at fuel cells as a way of meeting targets and managing risk. A low-emission technology, fuel cells convert fuel, often hydrogen, to electricity and heat.

Farms and food processing plants are demonstrating the feasibility of using biogas from animal and other waste products to produce power for fuel cells. Last year, UK scientists were reported to have turned coffee waste into electricity in a breakthrough that could curb pollution in the developing world, while also helping the farmers themselves.

These innovations are key for producers to transition away from carbon fuels, while also protecting them from potential future disruption. And in mature markets, retailers like Carrefour see an opportunity to own and manage their own clean energy systems.

Read more: JLP to phase out all diesel-powered trucks by 2028

Take freight, for example, which has perhaps seen the most significant advancement in fuel cell application over the past year. As global policy screws tighten around air quality, the next potential public health crisis, and regulation around CO2 emissions are firming up, distributors and retailers are taking note.

Supported by a favourable taxation environment, Swiss supermarket Co-op is part of a consortium that will use 1,000 hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks to transport goods. This is part of the company’s commitment to replace most of its fleet with zero-emission vehicles.

Over the next 18 months we will see a raft of smaller-sized vehicles piloted or becoming fully operational. Silent fuel cell delivery vans can deliver into urban areas at night, and zero emissions allow them into restricted air quality zones. And fuel cell refrigerated trucks could be considerably more efficient – and quieter – than the current fleet.

Internationally, Toyota is developing fuel cell trucks for the 7-11 convenience store chain in Japan. Vehicles are scheduled for deployment in 2019, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The move to fuel cells looks especially timely with heavy goods vehicles currently accounting for 17% of UK road transport greenhouse gas emissions, while the government looks at new measures to ensure lower-emission lorries pay less to use our roads. HGVs look set to be one of the swiftest adopters of fuel cell technology as battery power is less effective as weight and range increase.

Further along the supply chain, Europe now has more than 300 fuel cell forklift trucks in operation. Carrefour has the largest fleet, now 217-strong, adding 137 forklifts this year to a new distribution centre in France. Colruyt in Belgium has similar ambitions.

Opinion: How UK retail can help slash the environmental impact of rice farming

In Japan, the fleet has increased to approximately 100 fuel cell forklifts, aiming for 10,000 in 2030, and previously untouched markets are opening up to fuel cells, including Australia and China. With very little downtime, the operational efficiency of a fuel cell forklift is exceptional.

While the technology behind fuel cells isn’t new – it’s powered space exploration for decades – we are seeing a tangible interest in deployment, scale-up and sustainable business propositions in the grocery sector as costs come down.

The increased availability of low-cost renewables is helping those big retailers think about changing their energy systems – considering hydrogen as part of their serious big-picture, long-term option. And as some of the largest fuel station owners, they could support hydrogen infrastructure rollout too.

With governments indicating that fuel cells are a genuine contender in driving economic and industrial growth, momentum behind the decarbonisation revolution of the food and drink industry is building.

Perhaps it’s time we started talking about it.

Professor David Hart is director at E4tech and visiting professor at Imperial College