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Viewpoint: Fuel cells making steady progress

Fri, 01/04/2013 - 17:36 -- Ruth Williams

Tom Sperry

I founded UPS Systems in 1993 because I recognised that many businesses increasingly reliant on IT availability were facing problems because of poorly managed power within their IT departments. I decided to focus on the wider issues of standby power for all purposes, seeing the need for an independent organisation able to focus on the specific requirements of each customer and not limited to any single manufacturer’s product range.

We take the same approach to fuel cells. We started looking at fuel cells in 2003 and we installed the UK’s first fuel cell standby power system (8 kW) in 2006. Since then our fuel cell sales have increased year by year and in 2012 fuel cell volume was up 50% on the previous year.  We now buy fuel cells from half a dozen manufacturers, and we are the UK distributor for Hydrogenics of Canada, others come from the US, Germany, Denmark and the Far East.  

In many ways fuel cells can be regarded as power generators. However, whereas conventional generators use internal combustion engines to rotate an alternator, fuel cells generate power by producing electrons directly, with few moving parts. As a result, they have the potential to be very efficient and reliable.

Moreover, fuel cells are comparatively quiet and, other than electricity and heat, they produce only water vapour. This makes them ideal for indoor use, meaning that the generated power can be close to, or inside the computer room.

In a direct comparison with diesel generators, the capital cost of fuel cells is higher but, as with every new technology, these costs are now falling. Furthermore, because of the absence of moving parts, fuel cells are considerably less expensive to maintain than generators.

Where fuel cells really come into their own is where generators are not an option. This could be because of limited space or the inability to obtain planning permission, or where organisations have environmental policies that focus on improving air quality and reducing carbon-based emissions. Factors that weigh heavily in their favour are: reduced footprints, extended runtimes and lower life-time costs.

The question is always what do fuel cells offer that a diesel genset cannot? Because if we can get it in other ways the genset almost always wins. It is very uncommon not to receive planning permission for a diesel genset and this can usually be overcome by putting in a generator on wheels and calling it a temporary towable generator. So not only does it require a problem, the customer must also be keen to be more environmentally responsible.

Simple, safe power generation

IT applications

So while most of our fuel cells are sold to boat owners, we are seeing a growing market for UPS standby power applications in data centres. We have a customer in London, Winton Capital Management, which is located in a very exclusive part of Kensington. Winton was looking for a standby power solution that would provide power for unlimited periods in the event of extended power loss.

We offered to get them planning permission for a diesel generator on the roof, which is the standard extension to runtime solution in London. You might go up to four hours on a UPS, if you want to go much beyond that it is more cost-effective to install a diesel generator.

However, the planning permission was turned down as there are some seriously expensive residential properties on one side of the street and restaurants on the other. Royal Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council said no.

The alternatives were to put in a diesel generator on wheels in a very small yard which was under heavy competition for space for executive and customer car parking, dedicate a room to an awful lot of batteries which would have involved floor strengthening, or go for a fuel cell.

We went for the fuel cell. It was more expensive than a diesel generator but it came without the problems of noise and emissions and effectively solved their problem. The system is based on a Hydrogenics fuel cell engine, which utilises Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) technology.

Winton purchased three 10 kW fuel cells mounted in the same rack providing a maximum of 30kW of power; its modular, rack-integrated design makes it easy to add more additional power. Winton's fuel cell system is linked to a 30 kW 3-phase UPS that, in the event of a power failure, will provide potentially unlimited runtime.

Prime power for data centres

Data centre operators are also looking for alternative prime power supplies that are cleaner, more reliable and more available than grid power. Fuel cells fulfil these criteria and are a solution worth considering.

At the moment natural gas fuel cells are the only commercially viable option for providing prime power to data centres. Other units that use alternative fuels – such as methanol – are not yet capable of generating sufficient power.

Natural gas fuel cells have matured and are now able to provide up to 400 kW of assured electrical power. These fuel cells offer overall energy conversion efficiencies of 95% (compared to around 30% for traditional sources of mains power). These units can provide prime power for data centres and other businesses that want to be independent of the grid for mains power.

Driving down the costs of fuel cells

In terms of power output, fuel cells are significantly more expensive than the equivalent diesel generator. We say to our potential customers that if you are looking at producing 415V at 15 kW it'll cost three to five times more from a fuel cell.

For stationary power, fuel cells can currently be deployed for a cost per kilowatt of between $2,000 and $3,000. Manufacturing economies of scale will help to bring that cost down to less than $1,000 per kilowatt of power.

Everybody is hoping that fuel cells are becoming cheaper, but the cost of platinum is the major factor preventing this. Platinum is the catalyst at the heart of the fuel cell; unless the cost of platinum plummets, which is very unlikely at the moment, then the only other thing is higher production volume. This will bring down the balance-of-plant costs.

However, all the leading car manufacturers have said they will have a fuel cell vehicle available for purchase by 2015. When that happens we will see fuel cell engine costs reduce, but they will be 100 kW+ systems, whether they will be applicable to stationary fuel cell systems is debatable because they will not be able to produce enough for their vehicle output.

But what we have seen happening is the performance of fuel cells increase in terms of fuel cell conversion efficiency, most of our fuel cells range from 40 to 60% efficient which compares very favourably with diesel gensets, which are approximately 30% efficient in terms of converting fuel into energy.

The key message is fuel cells are commercially viable for some applications today. You just have to select the right product for the right application.