Morry Markowitz, President of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, states the case for fuel cells to deliver reliable power when needed, therefore, enhancing emergency response efforts
Chances are at one point you’ve been in a storm and lost power. This may have led to food spoiling in the freezer, phones running out of power and loss of communication. For emergency services, the situation can be even direr. In the U.S., Hurricane Irma caused power outages that shut down traffic lights across Florida, putting lives in jeopardy by causing numerous accidents. More recently, Washington D.C.’s 2019 summer power failure left conventional backup generators smoking and people trapped in Washington Hospital Centre elevators. Fuel cells present widening solutions, delivering reliable power when needed most and enhancing emergency response efforts.
Whether for primary or backup power, fuel cells provide resiliency and allow critical infrastructure to remain available in the event of an outage. Giant IT companies such as Apple, AT&T, IBM, Google and Verizon, continue to invest in fuel cell technology for critical telecommunications and datacentre operations. More recently, Microsoft and Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA) members Cummins and SOLID-power are developing the PowerRack concept – bringing power in direct proximity to datacentre server racks. Moreover, governments are deploying these clean technology devices to harness significant reductions in carbon emissions, as fuel cells present continuous power as we transition towards greater electrification and carbon neutrality.
FCHEA members Altergy and Plug Power provide fuel cell backup systems to railroads, telecommunications companies, utilities and network operations. Currently, there are more than 8,500 fuel cell systems installed for backup power across the country providing power to telecommunication towers, radio transmit receivers, air traffic control sites, first responder networks and more. The absence of simple infrastructure like traffic lights has real ramifications. Altergy provides a 1-kilowatt fuel cell generator specifically to power traffic signals in the event of an emergency. In 2017, Alexandria, Virginia became the first East Coast city to utilise fuel cells in this capacity.
Hurricanes are especially notorious for causing power outages. Fuel Cells are increasingly becoming the preferred solution. Hurricane Michael caused communications outages along Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Plug Power’s 49 fuel cell backup generators helped mitigate cascading outages. Doosan Fuel Cell America’s fuel cells were deployed in New England and New York providing power to grocery stores while minimising financial loss associated with spoiled produce and dairy. Altergy’s 60 fuel cell systems helped ensure communication channels remained operational when powering cell towers. During Hurricane Joaquin’s destruction in the Caribbean, Altergy’s backup fuel cells provided communities with continuous energy until the grid was restored. Rey Smith, CEO of Island Alternative Power Solutions, spoke to the fuel cell performance during the hurricane, remarking “in the most extreme conditions, Altergy fuel cells provided the most reliable, continuous backup power during Hurricane Joaquin while other solutions we service (batteries and generators) had multiple outages.”
Fuel cells vs conventional backup generators
Fuel cells offer significant advantages over conventional backup generators. A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts fuel directly into electricity without combustion. Simply put, a typical exchange with a fuel cell goes as follows: fuel goes in and electricity comes out. There are no moving parts and you can operate a fuel cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, making them extremely reliable. Fuel Cells operate off a host of fuel sources, including hydrogen generated via electrolysis from wind and solar power, as well as natural gas, propane, ammonia, methanol and biogas produced from waste-to-energy processes.
Many large-scale fuel cell systems in operation today take advantage of extensive and resilient natural gas infrastructure available. By utilising this infrastructure, when the grid goes down, the underground supply of natural gas will keep the fuel cell system running. Compared to traditional fossil fuel combustion, fuel cells have significantly higher efficiencies and dramatically lower emissions. As we move towards a broader hydrogen economy, more of these systems will be fueled by decarbonised sources.
Fuel cells are being increasingly deployed in microgrids. Microgrids are localised grids capable of running autonomously in the event they are disconnected from the traditional grid. Due to the access to natural gas and the flexibility allowing integration with other technologies, as well as complete grid independence, stationary fuel cells make ideal generators for microgrids. FCHEA members FuelCell Energy, Doosan Fuel Cell America and Bloom Energy have provided fuel cell microgrids across the country that provide emergency backup power for hospitals, grocery stores, police stations, municipal buildings and more. Fuel cells are scalable, allowing them to be deployed for any facility or application.
Connecticut was the first state to implement a microgrid program. The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection provides grants to critical facilities, which include hospitals, police stations, fire stations and more. Other states such as New Jersey have followed suit with funding programs of their own.
Stationary fuel cells provide reliable, flexible power that can be used in emergency situations. Companies are already taking advantage of the opportunities and the future of microgrids will call resilient power sources to keep critical infrastructure and human lives, safe.