Imagine a world with no connectivity. Yikes! A friend of mine spent a week trying to get in touch with her father after Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands. All she needed was to hear his voice and know he was ok, but she couldn’t reach him due to cell service being down in the islands. As of September 27, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that 91% of cell sites are out of service in Puerto Rico and 66% of cell sites are out of service in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That is a tough statistic to imagine! In our world of instant access, the stress of not being able to communicate is magnified. With Hurricanes Irma and Maria behind us, one would wonder how to better equip telecommunications site to not go down during power outages. We know some outage scenarios are unavoidable, but what options do we have for the future? Many are now looking to hydrogen fuel cells, which I’ll detail below.
When the main power (i.e., from the power company) goes out at a cell site with a permanent backup generator, the generator kicks on immediately and the site remains operating as normal. As long as the generator has fuel, the site continues operating. During extended outages, wireless carriers with permanent on-site generators develop a schedule to keep the generators fueled up and their sites on-air. Carriers who choose to not install permanent generators must rely on deploying temporary generators to sites where the power has gone out. There are three types of generators used in the telecommunications world right now: diesel, natural gas, and liquid propane. For companies looking to cut maintenance cost and get hip to the trend of clean energy, there is another option: hydrogen fuel cells.
What is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell? A fuel cell is a mechanism that consists of two electrodes, the anode and the cathode, meeting the combination of hydrogen and oxygen. When they combine and react (the stripping of the electrons), they produce electricity. As long as there is hydrogen available, the fuel cell should still be able to operate. See below for how the electricity is created. Some storage cabinets for fuel cells are able to provide 280 kW-h of runtime (roughly 4.5 days) before needing to be refueled. An added bonus is that fuel cells are very easy to replace. This means my friend could have potentially made contact with her father as soon as the storm passed and learn he was safe.
Benefits of Hydrogen Fuel Cells Compared to traditional generators, the U.S. Department of Energy mentions the advantages of fuel cells include being cleaner, quieter, less pollutant, and that they require little maintenance. They also have an operating efficiency around 50%, are scalable and modular to operate in parallel, have indoor/outdoor use with minimal footprint, and have longer life with no moving parts. Finally, they are designed to operate in extreme temperatures.
Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cells However, although cost efficient down the line, this technology is currently quite pricey. It is said the cost to produce comparable electricity for these fuel cells can be several times more than the traditional generators. Carriers must also factor in the cost and logistics of transporting, delivering and storing hydrogen.
It is completely up to carriers to choose which backup option they want for sites and, ultimately, money and efficiency are likely the determining factors in their selection. Although there is no guarantee for quick power restoration given environmental factors, I think that a reliable power source that buys a little more time to phone a loved one could mean a world of difference. With hydrogen fuel cell technology, there is a sense that we are moving in the right direction, and I am eager to see how far it goes!
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