Philippe Giroux, Logistics Director, Prelocentre: “Hydrogen is above all a tool”
20,000 square meters of warehouse space, 160 employees on site, 200,000 metric tons of fruits and vegetables delivered every year across the western half of France: Philippe Giroux beams with pride as he talks about the delivery site he manages. Located just a few kilometers outside Orléans, in a brisk environment of 10°C (“the best temperature for storing fruits and vegetables”), workers keep the site bustling round the clock. This demanding orchestration runs like clockwork on a 24/7 basis thanks to equipment entirely powered by hydrogen: 65 handling machines and 4 forklifts. Though Philippe Giroux is one of Europe’s leading pioneers in this area, he views this technology above all as a tool for filling his customers’ requests. Let’s find out more about his job.
When did you decide to equip the site you manage with hydrogen-powered forklifts?
It’s a project I had been thinking about for several years before finally putting it in place. Originally, I wanted to equip an existing site in Lyon, but that project didn’t pan out. Creating a new warehouse near Orléans provided an opportunity for us to integrate hydrogen directly into the site’s construction. It has now been 4 years since we took those steps, and construction did not last any longer than for a classic warehouse: it was even less intensive because I opted for a 100% hydrogen-powered site. That meant we didn’t have to build an electric battery charging room, which saved about 300,000 euros in our total budget of 20 million euros.
Did you make that decision based on environmental concerns or from a business perspective?
Whenever possible, I always try to find innovative and modern solutions in every business and industry, both in terms of technology and social responsibility. For example, I was one of the first people in France to employ women at my warehouses. I also developed an isothermal storage unit using carbon dioxide to generate cold.
“I’m convinced that hydrogen will play a fundamental role for France”
I’ve always had an eco-friendly streak, so hydrogen struck me as an interesting solution. I was also particularly confident in Air Liquide as a provider of this solution.
What specific advantages do these forklifts offer for your daily operations?
Hydrogen is above all a tool for me: I don’t run a laboratory or a research & development department, my company delivers goods to stores. Our site has operated on a 24/7 basis for 3 years, with seasonal upticks in activity: our business doubles in size during spring and fall. I double my staff during these periods by employing seasonal workers. If I used battery-powered equipment, I would also have to double the number of machines to allow ample recharging time.
Hydrogen eliminates the need to buy more machines: operators work on a rhythm of 3 rotating 8-hour shifts a day with the same number of machines. Refueling takes 2 minutes for 8 hours of operation, corresponding to a single shift. In addition, the hydrogen solution ensures constant and continuous performance until the tank is completely empty: performance does not decline near the end of the tank.
“If I used battery-powered equipment, I would have to double the number of machines to allow ample recharging time.”
However, hydrogen is not suited to every type of activity: a winegrower operating a single forklift will not see the same benefits. But it’s perfect for a situation and constraints like mine.
And in terms of operation?
Its capacity to reduce the physical toll of work is a major advantage. With battery electric forklifts, my employees would have to change the batteries after every cycle. But remember, these batteries can weigh between 200 kg and 1.5 metric tons! Changing a battery can take up to twenty minutes and it poses a significant accident risk. With hydrogen forklifts, refueling is simple: it is no different than filling a car’s gas tank.
Operating these machines is identical in every other sense. They are electric machines with no battery, in which the supplier installs a hydrogen fuel cell. The only difference is the engine, not the commands: no special training is required to operate these machines.
How did your stakeholders respond to your decision?
We work with our customer through a service provider relationship. We are contracted to deliver the products in question by the agreed-upon dates, which we do.
As for the local communities, we did not receive any specific response either, since hydrogen did not delay the site’s development.
Among our staff, I emphasized the hydrogen aspect with the first employees I welcomed on site. I expected to hear some concerns or hesitation, but it all went rather smoothly. I continue to inform my new employees in the interest of transparency, but I’ve yet to hear a negative response. The ones who have experience changing batteries and using charging rooms are relieved to save time and avoid that strenuous operation. Some are even excited to take part in an adventure and be among the few people in Europe to use this equipment. And after a short time, it becomes part of the routine!
How do you see the energy transition and the role hydrogen can play in this process?
I have a lot of faith in this solution as a replacement for fossil fuels. Using hydrogen puts every country on an equal footing: resources are not concentrated in any single region, as is the case for oil and rare earths. That allows us to imagine a more peaceful future. I’m convinced that hydrogen will play a fundamental role for France: it can be used to store alternative energies like solar and wind power, and soon we will be able to produce clean hydrogen via electrolysis.
I tell everyone about hydrogen: my family, friends, workers… I think it’s an essential solution, especially for mobility: I don’t see how a country like France could shift all its vehicles to battery electric cars without running into the problem of electricity production. Personally, I could easily see myself driving a hydrogen car if the infrastructure were in place. A car like the Toyota Mirai offers the same advantages of a gas-powered car in terms of fast refueling and long range, which are two major setbacks for battery electric cars. When people raise safety concerns, I always tell them it’s much safer to fill a car with hydrogen than to fill up a tank with gasoline…
Do you have any interesting stories you would like to share about hydrogen?
Carrefour took the initiative to transition a portion of its handling equipment at a warehouse in northern France to hydrogen. This was at a new warehouse using several hundred machines. But at the last minute, someone in the decision chain got nervous and held up the final approval due to safety concerns. I agreed to meet with the insurer and representatives from the warehouse’s Comité d’Entreprise (Work Council) and CHSCT (Committee for Hygiene, Safety and Working Conditions). When they arrived at my facility, they expected to walk into something like a nuclear power plant… They were surprised to find that it was nothing like that, and they were reassured to see that the solution is not dangerous.