Garbage In, Power Out: South Carolina BMW Plant Demonstrates Landfill Gas to Hydrogen Fuel

A BMW Spartanburg worker filling a fuel cell fork lift with power.

The South Carolina BMW manufacturing plant has demonstrated that fuel cells can be powered by fuel from a unique source: Garbage.

In a recent first-of-its-kind demonstration, the Energy Department, BMW, and project partners Ameresco, Gas Technology Institute and the South Carolina Research Authority powered some of the facility’s fuel cell forklifts with hydrogen produced on-site from biomethane gas at a nearby landfill.

The first phase of the landfill gas-to-hydrogen project showed that a viable business case can be made for large scale operation. The second phase of the project confirmed that commercially-available technologies are available to recover fuel cell-quality hydrogen from a landfill gas source. As the final step in the project, several of BMW’s material handling equipment units were fueled with hydrogen from the project equipment with no detectable difference in performance compared to that achieved when fueled by the existing delivered hydrogen at BMW.

Fuel cell forklifts have several advantages compared to standard forklifts that use lead-acid batteries. Unlike batteries, fuel cells can be rapidly refueled in less than three minutes, boosting productivity by eliminating the time and cost associated with battery change-outs and charging that can take up to several hours.

Fuel-cell-powered lift trucks can reduce labor cost of refueling and recharging by up to 80 percent and require 75 percent less space as compared to battery recharging equipment. Also, fuel cells provide consistent power throughout work shifts, unlike battery-powered forklifts, which may experience power reductions during a shift.

The fuel cell forklifts are vital to the day-to-day operations of the BMW plant, which manufactures 300,000 cars a year and supports about 8,800 jobs in South Carolina.

In addition to the fuel cell forklifts, to help offset BMW’s overall energy demand, the company maintains its own power station on site. The station is powered by four turbines fueled by reclaimed methane gas piped in from the nearby Palmetto Landfill. The turbines create enough energy to satisfy about 30% of the plant’s electrical needs and about 50% of the plant’s total energy requirements. Use of methane gas reduces the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 92,000 tons per year.

Based on calculations provided by the EPA, the reduction of 92,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year is equivalent to the benefit of planting over 23,000 acres of trees annually or 30 times the size of New York’s Central Park.

Hydrogen fuel cells are just one of many technologies the Energy Department supports that generate clean, reliable power and help create a more sustainable planet for future generations. Learn more about how hydrogen and fuel cells work and what the Energy Department is doing to advance these technologies. Visit the BMW Energy Center website for additional information on how the plant is using technology to incorporate clean energy solutions.