The high profile achieved by Ballard Power Systems’ fuel cell bus seems to have led many Canadians to think of fuel cells primarily as a potential future source of transportation energy. In fact there are many more fuel cells operating today in stationary applications than in mobile applications.
A recent article from the US Department of Energy makes clear the important role of stationary fuel cells in powering communications networks during storm situations. DOE reports that Altergy, a manufacturer of fuel cell power systems, had more than 60 fuel cells in the immediate Hurricane Sandy disaster area serving as backup power for cell phone towers. While many of the diesel, propane and battery cell phone tower backup generators were affected by the storm, all of the cell towers powered by fuel cells ran without any issues — allowing many disaster victims to continue accessing their cell phone network. UTC Power, another fuel cell manufacturer, had more than 20 400kW fuel cells systems in the New England and New York area providing continuous power to buildings such as grocery stores, with only one fuel cell shut down temporarily due to an issue outside of the fuel cell itself.
DOE points out that fuel cells can run as long as the fuel supply (usually hydrogen or methanol) is available. Fuel cells using hydrogen tanks can run for several days before a replacement tank is needed, depending on the size or number of the tanks. While diesel generators also provide long runtimes, their internal combustion engines have more moving parts than fuel cells and require more hands-on maintenance, something that may not be possible during natural disasters. The availability of diesel fuel during natural disasters can also be an issue. Another important advantage of fuel cells is the ability for remote monitoring and control, ensuring standby readiness and quick response, which can be critical.
The full DOE article, and a link to another DOE document on products supported by the Department’s Fuel Cell Technologies Program, is available at http://energy.gov/articles/calling-all-fuel-cells .