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Summary:

Sprint is taking its fuel cell trials up multiple flights, installing them on rooftops. These cells will replace backup generators in dense cities, making them not only greener but also less of a logistical nightmare.

Sprint is no stranger to the hydrogen fuel cell. Since 2005, it’s installed 500 cells at the bases of its towers, replacing the diesel generators that back up its network in case of a power outage. But on Tuesday Sprint announced it was raising its fuel cells efforts to a new level – quite literally. It’s installing them on rooftops.

Rooftops are significant because they’re often the prime cellular real estate in downtown urban markets, where buildings are the highest structures in sight. They also present their own unique set of logistical problems. It’s not difficult to install a generator at the base of tower and refuel it from a truck, but you can’t say the same for a cell site atop of five-story building. Installing or replacing a generator involves  a heavy crane, and refueling can’t be done with a hose. Instead it involves transporting fuel up five flights.

Bloom Energy, Fuel Cells, Not A Good Match For Utilities -- Yet

Bloom Energy fuel cells

Meanwhile fuel cells are modular and lightweight, and Sprint claims it has devised an installation plan that allows their hydrogen stores to be refueled from the ground, obviating the need to move tanks of diesel through hallways and elevators. Sprint estimated that 25 percent of its cell sites are located on rooftops, and in major metro areas that number is even higher.

Sprint won’t install fuel cells at all of those sites, and it said it is still determining the financial and operational scope of the project. The U.S. Department of Energy is helping fund the project – it awarded Sprint a $7.3 million clean energy research grant in 2009 – and Sprint said the main goal of the project is explore economically viable ways to deploy fuel cells in mobile networks on a large-scale. Sprint plans to begin its first rooftop installations before the end of the year.

Sprint Green phonesOf all of the mobile carriers, Sprint has been the most visible in promoting a green agenda. It’s launched innumerable green phones made from recycled materials and featuring alternative charging sources – though consumers haven’t exactly been receptive. It recycled nearly all of its nationwide iDEN network after shutting down Nextel over the summer. And it’s committed to reducing its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2017.

When it comes to alternative power sources, Sprint has definitely been innovative, exploring wind, solar and even geothermal as means of powering remote base stations. But it’s been slow to implementing these new technologies on a broad scale.

Back in 2008, Sprint announced a very ambitious plan to put fuel cells at every cell site in its new WiMAX network for backup power. When Clearwire took over the WiMAX project, the fuel cell plans were scrapped, and when Sprint launched its own complete network overhaul in 2010, no major fuel cell push was in the blueprints.

Feature photo courtesy of FlySi via Compfight cc

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  1. Natural gas reformers are off-the-shelf items so Sprint should pipe natural gas up to reformer/fuel cell generator for its towers and hopefully eliminate the expense of fueling these sites.

  2. Hi there,

    Sprint does not use Bloom Energy solid oxide fuel cells for their cellphone towers. (The cellphone towers themselves only need a few kW’s, so a 200 kW Bloom Energy Server would be overkill!)

    Sprint mentioned using Altergy and Relion fuel cells in a DOE presentation. (These are PEM or Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cells, probably in the 1-10 kW range.)
    http://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/pdfs/htac_apr13_10_kenny.pdf

    Matthew Klippenstein

  3. This is a very nice initiative, hope they can master it without having to waste too much money. I would love if e. g. my operator here in Canada did something similar!

  4. Felix Hoenikker Thursday, January 30, 2014

    It seems to me that there would be a lot less O&M with solar/battery backup….

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