Be prepared with hydrogen fuel cell back-up power

April 14, 2014
By JACK BASI, CommScope -- Recently, the emergence of advanced hydrogen fuel cell technology has more business owners and managers re-thinking their back-up power strategy.

By Jack Basi, CommScope -- The motto “Be Prepared” was written in 1908 by Robert Baden-Powell for his training manual Scouting for Boys. The motto is familiar in languages all over the world and is rooted in places where the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Girl Scouts have set up charters over the past 100 years. This motto can also have a significant meaning for people who weren’t in the scouts.

When I was a young boy, we experienced several power outages on our street; and for me and my friends, this was exciting. We spent hours playing in the dark with our flashlights and candles until the lights came back on or when it was time to go to bed. We would practice our Morse code or pretend the lights were lasers. For us, it wasn’t entirely a bad thing when the power went down because we felt prepared.

For small and mid-sized businesses, however, power outages are not so amusing. According to Price Waterhouse research, once an outage has occurred:

• 33 percent of companies take more than a day to recover.
• 10 percent of companies take more than a week.
• It can take up to 48 hours to reconfigure a network.
• It can take days or weeks to re-enter lost data.
• 90 percent of companies that experience computer downtime and don’t have a contingency plan go out of business within 18 months.

Recently, the emergence of advanced hydrogen fuel cell technology has more business owners and managers re-thinking their back-up power strategy. Electrical current hydrogen fuel cells (HFC) are a low-maintenance solution that is gaining momentum in the market as a reliable alternative source of back-up power. HFCs are electro-chemical devices that use hydrogen fuel and atmospheric oxygen to generate clean and quiet direct current electricity.

Notably, in 2011, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) deployed an HFC solution to provide backup power to its data center at its headquarters in Exton, PA. That HFC was called into service during Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. During the severe weather, the fuel cell provided sufficient backup power until normal power was restored.

Extreme concern: The rising cost of power outages

On August 14, 2003, a massive blackout along both sides of the US/Canadian border left an estimated 50 million people in the dark. The outage, caused by a software glitch in the control room alarm system, affected approximately 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million Americans in eight states. Eleven deaths were blamed on the problem and the financial toll was estimated at around $6.5 billion. The event prompted officials at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory to undertake a nationwide study to identify and quantify the cost of power outages in the United States. Their conclusion: Each year, power outages cost an estimated $80 billion. In 2013, Hartford Steam Boiler forecasted an estimated annual loss from power failure in the United States at $100 billion.

Scouts may be prepared but, clearly, most businesses and other facilities are not. Despite the fact that one example was deemed to be caused by a software glitch, we are increasingly finding that power outages worldwide are often caused by severe weather events such as high winds, flooding or freezing conditions that involve heavy snow causing trees to snap power lines. In recent years, there has been much speculation that these and other weather events are part of a global climate change pattern of increasing extreme weather phenomena.

Whatever the underlying reason, most experts agree that the incidence of grid power outages will only increase as extreme weather events become more common and as the existing grid infrastructure continues to deteriorate. Especially hard hit will be small and medium-size retail outlets whose lack of space and monetary resources limits their options for dependable back-up power solutions. This sizable group includes independently-owned stores, as well as chain stores and retail banking locations. As part of being prepared, they need to have workable business continuity plans in place. Ideally, these plans will include affordable, clean and sustainable back-up power solutions.

Types of back-up power

Traditionally, businesses rely on a combination of generators powered by diesel fuel and lead-acid batteries for back-up power. These solutions, known as gen-sets, are permanently installed on an exterior concrete slab in a climate-controlled enclosure and hardwired into the building’s electrical system. When a power outage occurs, the facility’s electrical system initially shifts the power load to the batteries and the generator is activated. Once the generator reaches full power, the load switches to the gen-set. When grid power is restored, the switch reconnects all attached circuits back to the utility lines and turns the generator off.

Still, commercial users are plagued by persistent issues with generators, including maintenance and space requirements, unreliable operation, inefficient delivery of power and the impact of noise and air pollution. In the absence of viable alternatives, issues with generators were tolerated.

Over the years, a variety of HFC technologies were developed to optimize performance for specific applications. The most common types include proton exchange membrane (PEM), phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC), solid oxide fuel cell and molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC). PEM fuel cells are suited for smaller capacities (2–200 kW), while PAFCs and MCFCs are suited for higher capacities (50 kW–10 MW and 200 kW–100 MW). Among these, the PEM fuel cell is the most common.

Around 95 percent of fuel cells in use worldwide are based on this technology. At the heart of the PEM fuel cell is the membrane electrode assembly. It consists of a proton exchange membrane sandwiched between two catalyst-coated carbon papers. Platinum or similar types of noble metals are typically used as the catalyst material while the electrolyte serves as a polymer membrane.

Disadvantages of traditional gen-sets

Why is it worth considering the fuel cell over more traditional gen-sets? Gen-sets depend on a complex system of moving parts which, over time, suffer physical degradation. The wear is compounded by the generators’ sensitivity to extreme temperatures. For example, diesel fuel is prone to gelling in cold weather, causing it to solidify into a partially crystalline state. In high temperatures, the systems must be kept cool to prevent overheating during start-up. Because there is no way to know when a gen-set will be called into service, the user must regulate the temperature inside the enclosure at all times.

Keeping gen-sets ready requires regular maintenance. It is recommended that maintenance be performed monthly, at minimum, and preferably on a weekly basis. Weekly duties include inspecting for:

• Leaks
• Wear and tear
• Damage
• Loose connections and corrosion
• Fuel, oil and coolant levels
• Issues with the fuel delivery system, battery charger, wiring, air inlets and outlets

Fuel must be sampled and checked on a regular basis and filtered before use. Tiny changes in fuel quality and engine performance can cause poor combustion and result in the build-up of abrasive hard carbons that accelerate wear inside the bores. Combustion can create soot and left-over fuel residues which clog and gum piston rings, causing a further drop in sealing efficiency and exacerbating the initial low pressure. In addition to inspecting and testing the generator’s critical components, monthly maintenance should also involve load testing in which the generator is used to power facility equipment as it would in an actual blackout.

Typically, all of these issues are readily managed in big operations, but are problematic in situations where smaller businesses are located in retail or business parks where space is limited and the neighbors are resistant to having traditional gen-sets located nearby. Also gen-set noise is a major concern. Emergency generators can easily exceed 100 decibels -- as loud as a jackhammer heard from ten meters away. Due to the dangerous emissions and operating noise levels of generators, many municipalities now require businesses to obtain a site permit before installation.

Benefits of HFC technology

By comparison, fuel cells have minimal environmental impact. They use a renewable and plentiful fuel and the only byproducts are heat and water. Fuel cells also reduce noise emissions. Since fuel cells do not rely on combustion and have few moving parts, they are quiet -- about 60 decibels, the volume of a typical conversation. With noise pollution at a minimum, fuel cells can be sited indoors or outdoors without being obtrusive. Some predict that fuel cells will become mainstream soon. Earlier this year, Microsoft revealed a successful test of a fuel cell system that directly powered a rack of data center servers without the need for traditional power conditioning electronics, thus dramatically improving the efficient use of the electricity generated.

Mercedes-Benz has been touring the world with three fuel cell powered cars, each having driven 30,000 km. Recently a Washington Post reporter test drove a modified Toyota Highlander (SUV) and claimed that Toyota will introduce a mass produced fuel cell car in 2015, while Hyundai may bring theirs to market in late 2014. The advantage of the fuel cell car versus the all-electric car is that the fuel cell car can be refueled in moments – if you can find a hydrogen refueling station. And here is the hitch: in order for fuel cell cars to be successful, they will require fuel distribution systems. For fuel distribution systems to become widespread there will need to be a demand. Although there are many hydrogen gas suppliers throughout the developed world, they are not yet set up to resupply businesses during electricity grid power outages. Thankfully, most power outages only last for less than a few hours and fuel cell business continuity installations can run for twelve or more hours with the hydrogen stored on site. Bottled hydrogen is very safe to store and unlike fossil fuels, it does not deteriorate. The current generation of fuel cell-based business continuity solutions have very small footprints, even with the hydrogen gas bottles included. They require minimal maintenance, run quietly and are ready to go at a moment’s notice, automatically. It is the ideal back-up power solution for the small-to-medium sized business owner to “be prepared” when the power grid taken an unexpected turn for the worse.

JACK BASI is Fuel Cell Product Line Manager – Enterprise Division at CommScope. Jack has experience in multiple technologies, products, markets and applications spanning computing, telecom, networking and communications, Ethernet – switching/routing, systems, optical-speed semi ICs and network management software. Jack holds a B.Sc. (Honors) Telecommunications Engineering from University of Essex (England).

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