By buying a stake in Plug Power Inc. (PLUG), a company that makes alternative energy technology for materials handling equipment, Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) appears to be following the playbook it previously used to enter cloud computing. According to the deal's terms, Amazon will buy $70 million worth of Plug Power's hydrogen fuel cells and other technology this year for use in its fulfillment network, with further potential sales of as much as $600 million. The agreement also allows the Seattle-based ecommerce giant to eventually purchase up to a 23 percent stake in Latham, N.Y.-based Plug Power. (See also: Plug Power Skyrockets on Interest From Amazon.)
An article in online publication Greentech Media outlines three compelling reasons for Amazon to invest in Plug Power. First, it will help free up storage space at Amazon's warehouses. This is because Plug Power's product does not require cumbersome battery infrastructure for recharging and can allow the company to recover as much as 10 percent of warehousing space. Second, it could lead to increased productivity at Amazon's warehouses because Plug Power's fuel cells last longer compared with lead acid batteries and do not require frequent replacements during operations. They can also operate in freezing temperatures. Third, the operational simplicity of hydrogen cell recharging will ensure that forklifts use fewer resources and people, leading to an overall savings on the company's balance sheet. (See also: Plug Power Ships First ProGen Fuel-Cell Engines.)
According to Greentech Media, Amazon is employing a strategy similar to the one it followed to leap ahead in cloud computing. By becoming a first-mover in adopting fuel cell-powered forklifts, the company will control the levers of future technology. Competitors, such as The Kroger Co. (KR), will have no option but to follow Amazon's lead or purchase services from it, thanks to Amazon's stake in Plug Power.
Amazon competitor Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT) has been an avid and frequent user of fuel cell-operated forklifts since at least 2006. In fact, Plug Power's shares have bumped up in the past due to large orders placed by the Arkansas-based retailer. However, Wal-mart has not shown much interest in acquiring a stake or purchasing Plug Power outright. Kroger and Lowe's Companies, Inc. (LOW) also own and operate more fuel cell forklifts than Amazon. (See also: Walmart Stock: Analyzing 5 Key Suppliers.)
Amazon's move may also be related to its growing interest in managing supply chain and warehousing operations. As the Seattle company’s operational footprint and volume has increased, the complexity of its operations has multiplied. The market for fuel cell-operated forklifts is expected to multiply in the future, and a stake in a leading provider will all but guarantee a supply to Amazon. (See also: Unwrapping Amazon's Moves in Logistics.)