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Summary:

Tropical storm Irene reminded us how essential reliable cell phone service has become in our lives. Kathy Fosberg of IdaTech discusses the emerging technology of fuel cells and how they power mobile service so we’re free to tweet about the hurricane.

Hurricane Irene

Hurricane IreneTropical storm Irene reminded us – as if we could ever forget – how essential reliable cell phone service has become in our lives. As the ferocious winds and heavy rains downed trees and millions of people across the East lost power and traditional land phone service, cell phones became all the more important.

We used our cell phones to check on the safety of relatives and friends, to stay in contact with work, to get the latest news in our communities, look at photos and video of storm damage, order takeout food and even to network socially. In fact, status updates on Facebook and tweets about the frustrations of losing power were made possible by using smartphones that maintained their Internet and cell connections, technology that didn’t exist in the past with hurricanes such as Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

Despite widespread power outages, wireless networks stood up well to Irene. According to a New York Times report, the Federal Communications Commission said thousands of wirelines went down during the storm while 1,400 cell sites along the coast were down, and several hundred were running on backup power.

Backup power for extended periods of time to cell phone sites is critical in times of natural disaster like Irene. We’ve heard of generators and use them in our homes and businesses. But the problem I see with diesel generators for cell sites that we might not be aware of is that they are noisy, produce noxious emissions and require a lot of maintenance and repair because they have moving parts. Diesel also is commonly stolen in some countries, with around 15-30 percent of generator fuel being siphoned off in some developing regions — and as soon as the site runs out of diesel, it goes down.

A better way

A cleaner alternative is emerging. Wireless service providers increasingly are investing in fuel cell systems for backup power. Fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen, the molecules that create water, to produce electricity with no pollution. We see it as a green alternative that is on the rise. Clean and energy efficient fuel cells can help reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent as well as decrease other toxic emissions and deliver additional environmental and efficiency benefits.  They also are very quiet, less costly to maintain and are not targets for theft.

When there is a loss of power for the electric grid, an attached fuel cell system senses the drop in the direct current voltage and automatically starts up, and begins reforming fuel. The liquid fuel is heated to the vapor point, and steam is reformed, and at the same time hydrogen starts flowing to the fuel cell module. Electricity is generated in the fuel cell stack by the chemical reaction between hydrogen from the fuel processer and oxygen in ambient air. The fuel cell can deliver power in about one minute and reach full power in 3.5 minutes, providing 5 KW of power to the telecom site.

When Irene was in full force with high winds that knocked out electrical grid power in one tropical location, a customer of our ElectraGen ME backup power fuel cell system reported the system automatically turned on, providing power to the telecom base station for hours. And members of this resort community never lost cell service.

Around the globe in times of severe weather, emergencies and in countries with limited or unreliable grids, backup fuel cells provide this essential service countless times – without cell phone users ever knowing it, but keeping them happy that they always have service.

With consumers’ growing reliance on cell phones, we expect wireless carriers around the world will continue to recognize the need for backup power. And with today’s energy-consciousness and sustainability efforts, we expect they’ll increasingly turn to a greener and sustainable solution: advanced fuel cell systems.

Just think — the next time you’re in the dark texting friends during a storm, it may be thanks to a fuel cell system.

Kathy Fosberg is marketing communications manager at IdaTech, a leading global supplier of fuel cell systems for backup power to the telecom industry based in Bend, Oregon.  

 Image courtesy of Flickr user Undertow851.

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  1. So what is the initial cost comparison of your fuel cells vs a 3-5 kw diesel system?

  2. I’m surprised to find this article on GigaOm as it differs so much from other content. Here are some additional facts and/or viewpoints to consider:

    The most common source of fuel for fuel cells is Hydrogen, which is more expensive and has lower availability than other options. Long-term natural disasters require refilling of the fuel reserve; the more common the fuel source, the better.

    Fuel cells are currently much more expensive than conventional generators and would be difficult to justify on a pure cost basis. Also, this higher cost could make them even more of a target for theft. Same for the hydrogen fuel.

    Fuel cells may have very few moving parts, but this doesn’t mean that they are completely maintenance free. All backup systems should undergo periodic inspection to insure proper operation. Conventional technologies based on years of experience can sometimes be more reliable than new technologies. I haven’t seen any reliability data to indicate fuel cells are any better or worse than conventional alternatives. In-use reliability data is required for a valid comparison; theoretical comparisons of technology aspects are pure theory.

    Conventional engine-based generators can start-up and provide peak power in 5 seconds or less; 3.5 minutes is a long delay in comparison.

    Conventional generators are commonly installed in sound-deadening enclosures, with multiple ratings of noise attenuation available. A near silent enclosure could be utilized if noise were a factor. Many cell phone towers are not in locations where noise is a concern.

    The power density of fuel cells is lower in comparison to conventional generators. They can require more space for installation, which may or may not be a concern.

    Engines in the latest emissions tiers produce very low levels of emissions. Alternative fuels such as natural gas provide other emissions benefits. While fuel cells do produce even less emissions, the actual emissions produced by conventional engines should be quantified, especially in a back-up power situation where the unit runs only occasionally.

  3. Benjamin Emley Monday, October 10, 2011

    I agree somewhat with Carlton in that the hype and excitement for fuel cells should consider “all” of the limitations of fuel cells before convincing the public that it’s a good idea or better than what we currently have. It’s especially nauseating to read PR articles that try to convince people that the current status of some fuel cells make them competitive vs conventional technologies when clearly there are problems, otherwise we all would have one by now. I develop ceramic fuel cell systems that may eventually “make sense” but it’s purely on the cost basis; not the warm fuzzy feeling for the environment. Two quick things to consider for Idatech — 1. I think investors should consider the problems of changing the current infrastructure of fuels before committing to the hydrogen economy. 2. What is the cost of the methanol water fuel per gallon? …Exactly; nothing warm and fuzzy about that. My company’s focus is competing with the value measured by the initial cost and the lifetime cost of the fuel cell system. I’m confident that no other fuel cell systems can address the market opportunities like we have. We’re about two years away from hitting the public…

  4. Katie Fehrenbacher Monday, October 10, 2011

    @Carlton Bale, @Benjamin Emley, Thanks for the thoughts. It’s weekend guest column from an exec at IdaTech, which sells fuel cells for backup power to telcos. We’ve written more skeptical pieces on fuel cells here: http://gigaom.com/cleantech/the-pain-point-for-bloom-energy-fuel-cell-makers/

  5. I was wondering do the skeptical comments about hydrogen fuel cells also apply to new fuel cells that use ammonia instead??

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