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Hydrogen fuel cells for telecoms: Clean power is calling

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 17:10 -- Ruth Williams

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A reliable electricity supply is vital for modern societies to function. Communication, business and healthcare to name just three are all dependent on a constant supply of electricity. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the telecommunications industry, where electricity is needed to power the telecoms towers used by over five billion mobile phone users globally. Many of these telecoms towers operate in some of the world’s most remote areas, where unreliable electricity supplies necessitate extensive use of backup power systems. 

Diesel generators have been used traditionally for backup power, often running for six to eight hours a day in remote areas with unreliable electricity supplies. However, with diesel prices doubling over the last decade and nearly 20% of the fuel lost due to theft in some locations, diesel is becoming a financially unsustainable method of powering telecom towers. Add to this the environmental impact of diesel generator emissions, in India alone the sector accounts for six million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, and it becomes apparent that an alternative must be found. 

The challenge in India

1-57For the telecoms industry, emerging countries such as India present a particular challenge. India’s telecoms market is the world’s second largest, with over 881 million mobile users and 350 000 telecom towers, creating an annual fuel bill of US$2 billion for the more than two billion litres of diesel consumed by towers in India each year. Diesel costs for telecom tower operators are set to increase further when government subsidies, currently around 20%, are removed and pricing is deregulated. 

A consultation paper released in 2011 by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India noted that the mobile phone industry is the country’s second largest user of diesel after the Indian railways. Diesel use is extensive as 65% of telecoms towers require at least eight hours of backup power per day, with over a quarter of towers off grid, relying solely on diesel generators for power. 

A further 40% of telecom towers suffer from an unreliable electricity supply in semi-urban and rural areas. This is perhaps not a surprise in a country where 403.7 million people, including half of all rural households, are without access to electricity. 

However, it is in rural areas, where existing infrastructure is poor or non-existent, that demand for mobile devices has exceeded all expectation. Increasing mobile phone ownership and by necessity a rise in the number of telecom towers has a powerful economic effect on developing nations. According to a recent London Business School study, for each additional ten mobile phones per 100 people in a developing nation, GDP rises by 0.5%. As well as enabling communication and the spread of vital information to rural areas, mobile devices have revolutionised banking for millions of people unable to access traditional financial services. 

Mobile device adoption rates are rocketing as handset prices plummet and mass-market availability brings incredible new opportunities to urban and rural communities. Competition between operators is extensive, which leads to falling pricing for consumers and lower average revenue per user (ARPU) for operators. 

Falling margins are driving cost reductions at the same time as demand increases for high bandwidth data services, greater coverage and uninterrupted service. In a sector which is growing by over 25% a year, a total of 500 000 towers are predicted to be installed by 2015. With all these challenges present, it is little wonder that operators are looking to alternative energy sources, such as hydrogen, to increase profits and reliability.

Hydrogen – clean, safe, cost effective

Hydrogen is a clean, safe and cost effective alternative fuel to diesel. In place of the inefficient combustion of diesel, an emitter of large amounts of carbon dioxide and particulates, the efficient electrochemical conversion of hydrogen in a fuel cell results in the production of water vapour, some heat and electricity. Hydrogen is also a cheaper fuel than diesel, and as a gaseous fuel, it is particularly hard to steal for re-use. 

Hydrogen fuel cells are regarded as a prime solution to meet the reduced emissions, cleaner air and improved performance needs of the telecoms industry, in both remote and urban locations. Motorola, one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, has stated, “Fuel cells are emerging as a strong alternative power source for powering telecommunication base stations”. 

Fuel cells serve a range of power demands from watts to megawatts, reliably functioning across a wide temperature range, with high efficiency, few moving parts and virtually silent operation. The systems can also be remotely monitored, allowing engineers to observe the operating conditions and health of the system, diagnosing and addressing any performance issues which may appear whatever the unit’s location. 

Clean power on the ground

Intelligent Energy is a fuel cell company with a globally scalable business, operating in the stationary power, motive and consumer electronics sectors. Our proprietary and highly efficient power cores are designed to be integrated into high volume, mass market products and have received commercial approval from significant global brands. We employ 225 staff in Loughborough, UK, with additional operational sites and staff in California, India and Japan. 

Designed with low cost materials and mass manufacturability in mind, Intelligent Energy’s Stationary Power fuel cell systems are capable of meeting 1kW to 50kW power demands through a flexible modular design perfectly suited to remote stationary power applications. Fuel cells and batteries are complementary technologies, offering a complete backup power solution for telecom tower operators, as fuel cells can be used to power the tower and also top up the batteries. 

In the case of an electricity grid failure, the battery provides instantaneous power to active components within the telecoms tower. As electricity grid failures can last for several hours, the fuel cell is used to charge the batteries and power components once battery voltage falls below a pre-set value. The fuel cells can also be used to power essential air conditioning equipment if temperatures rise too high.

During six months of testing with mobile operators in India, Intelligent Energy’s backup power fuel cell system has provided over 5MWh of energy, often running for over 12 hours a day. Each system powering a tower requires approximately 600kg of hydrogen annually, while emitting zero carbon emissions. Doing the same job, a conventional diesel generator would consume 7 884 litres of diesel, with around 21 100kg of CO2 emissions. 

Even considering that the subsidised cost of diesel is $1 per litre and the delivered cost of hydrogen is $7.80 per kg, hydrogen powered towers are 15% more economical than their diesel counterparts. When the rising cost of diesel, increased maintenance costs and theft is taken into account, the financial benefits of hydrogen become clearer still. Built in redundancy and integrated health monitoring in the fuel cell systems also result in increased reliability when compared to diesel generators. 

Like many other nations around the world, India is taking steps to reduce its energy consumption and carbon emissions, with targets of a 20-25% reduction in emissions between 2005 and 2020. Intelligent Energy is already working with the government to develop a roadmap to a hydrogen-based future for mobile operators. 

This includes helping operators meet new guidelines for reducing operating emissions and updating policies around the safe transportation and storage of hydrogen. As well as providing its fuel cell backup power systems, Intelligent Energy has partnered with local companies to cultivate a commitment to hydrogen fuel supply in India. The company works with partners to provide maintenance via field support for the complete telecoms tower installation. 

Global applications

Fuel cell stationary and backup power systems have global applications not only in telecommunications, but also in a wide range of environments including data centres, disaster recovery and off-grid power. At present, however, it is in the role of clean power sources for telecommunication towers for which fuel cell systems excel. 

The explosion in the number of mobile devices in developing nations is already exerting a powerful social and economic effect on societies around the world. By adopting hydrogen as an alternative fuel, the telecoms industry is safeguarding against costly network disruption and demonstrating a commitment to reliable, efficient, low cost and clean power.