Cell Tower Owners Mulling Fuel Cells For Backup Power
Wireless service providers are starting to explore whether fuel cells could be the answer to a tough question. How can providers get good backup power to the rising number of cellular towers perched on hilltops, high-rises, church steeples and elsewhere?
Disasters can halt wireless phone and data services just when they're needed the most. Cell towers that withstand a storm or earthquake still won't transmit for long if a blackout cuts their main source of power. Telecom firms use batteries and generators at many towers. They also keep generator trucks ready to roll to crisis spots. Providing backup might soon be mandatory.
Batteries have been a standard telecom backup power source for nearly a century and generators have been popular in the last decade, says Manish Bhandari, general manager of Emerson Network Power, a unit of Emerson Electric Co. (NYSE:EMR - News) But lately he's seen rising interest in fuel cells.
Solar Also Considered
"In the last 18 months, I would say the number of inquiries associated with fuel-cell-based applications is 10 to 15 times more than it used to be," Bhandari said, acknowledging it used to be nearly nil. "We are working with pretty much every major wireless operator either on a first office application, a trial site or large network-based RFQs (requests for quotation) throughout systems."
Emerson Network buys fuel cells as components from manufacturers, and builds them into infrastructure systems it markets to telecom companies for cell and other sites. It also sells battery-based systems.
But batteries and generators aren't practical or cost-effective for all cell sites, Bhandari says, leading to the rise of alternative energy solutions.
"The two being mostly investigated are fuel cells and solar cells," he said.
A solar array, however, might need to be the size of a hockey rink to power a site, he says. By contrast, fuel cells are compact and low maintenance.
"The fuel is compressed hydrogen. Cylinders would last anywhere from three to nine months without a refill requirement," Bhandari said. That's if they were on standby to be used as backup, not in continual use.
He describes a fuel cell as two sets of membranes. As you push hydrogen and oxygen through them, a photovoltaic current is created.
Battery or fuel cell backup systems can cost $20,000 to $70,000 per cell site, part of a telecom infrastructure equipment package that can range from $100,000 to $300,000 on a cell site that can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $2.5 million, Bhandari says. He says fuel cells have been considered too expensive for primary power but can be cost-effective in backup capacity. They don't cost much more than batteries.
A Federal Communications Commission mandate that would force telecom firms to provide eight hours of backup power for cell sites is on hold. The industry has argued that the mandate would be impractical and costly. In January, wireless association CTIA, Sprint Nextel and USA Mobility won a court appeal staying the measure. It's still pending review by the FCC and the Office of Management and Budget.
"Now we have a little more time to make our case as to why we think it's unbearable on a lot of fronts," said CTIA spokesman John Walls. "Part of our belief is that it's not within the jurisdiction of the FCC. It cannot regulate on an issue such as backup power. We also challenge it on terms of impracticality."
There are some cell sites situated in such a way that it's difficult or impossible to equip them with backup power.
"It could be very expensive as well, but the primary concern is impracticality," Walls said, questioning for instance the safety of adding significantly more diesel power on top of a steeple or a school. "Lead acid batteries are a very popular source, but we're talking about a ton and a half. These are not double-A batteries we put in our flashlights. These are big batteries."
At some sites, Walls says, diesel fuel for generators can't be put right next to the site, so it requires a reservoir tank and a tunnel.
"Do you really want to shoot it up through six floors of a building?" he asked.
Walls says that interest in backup power for cell sites jumped after Hurricane Katrina, and that the industry has already made "significant refinements." But he says he's seen no migration to fuel cells thus far.
Bhandari says telecom fuel cells could get a boost if the FCC mandate becomes final. And the nascent application is "also helped by the desire to disaster-proof communities."
"Fuel cells have started becoming more competitive," he said. "I think once the auto applications (for fuel cells) start picking up, we're going to see another quantum leap in the cost-competitiveness of telecom fuel cell applications."