Why Fuel Cells for Telecom back-up is a good call

The fuel cell is a versatile and scalable enough technology to fulfil power requirements in almost any imaginable application. However, it is in applications with a specific and niche set of requirements that the strengths of fuel cells most noticeably surpass alternative solutions. One such application is backup and remote power, in particular for telecommunications base transceiver stations (BTS) in developing regions, where shipments of fuel cells have increased rapidly in the last two years. Mobile phone adoption is rocketing in these regions and cellular connectivity is becoming crucial to economic activities. In India there are 65,000 BTS being installed each year. However, these regions are subject to underdeveloped and unreliable electricity grids that threaten to jeopardise connectivity, creating an increasing demand for reliable grid-support and off-grid power solutions.



Post-industrial nations such as the UK and USA developed their telecommunications networks in a time before emissions and pollutants had become such a strong concern, and the majority of BTS in these countries rely on expensive lead-acid batteries or diesel generators for backup power. The detrimental effects of using diesel generators are obvious and although lead-acid batteries do not produce emissions whilst in use, they raise significant environmental concerns in their manufacture and disposal. 19% of the BTS being installed in India are either powered by or hybridised with renewables and this is indicative of how nations developing rapidly at present are having to juggle economic progression with environmental responsibilities.



Within such a context fuel cells are beneficial in two main ways: they produce little-to-no emissions in use (depending on fuel) and offer more versatile and reliable performance than lead-acid batteries and diesel generators. Add to this areduced life cycle cost compared against lead-acid batteries (thanks to decreased maintenance and replacement needs) and fuel cells become a truly compelling option. It is for these reasons that the systems have also been popular replacements for existing systems, particularly in the USA, where the inadequacy of existing backup power systems was highlighted during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The reliability of the fuel cell systems installed in response was proven when both Altergy and Ballard Power Systems reported that their systems provided continuous power during Hurricane Sandy. For more on how fuel cells excel during extreme weather events, please see the previous analyst view ‘Extreme Weather and Fuel Cell Backup Power’.


In January 2013 Ballard stated that in a six-week period it had received orders for more than 400 ElectraGen fuel cell systems from distribution partners for deployment in African and Asian telecoms networks; at that time Ballard had shipped more than 2,000 telecoms backup systems. (Ballard acquired key assets of the IdaTech business it supplied stacks to in July 2012, including the ElectraGen telecoms backup product line.) In November 2012 it was announced that Ballard and Nokia Siemens Networks are developing mobile network offerings with integrated fuel cell backup systems. Nokia Siemens Networks is one of the largest telecommunications solutions suppliers in the world and its adoption of fuel cells allows those ordering network infrastructure, such as mobile networks in developing countries, to easily select fuel cells as part of their configuration.



China is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. In April 2012 it was announced that China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology had granted approval of VelaTel subsidiary VN Technologies’ fuel cells for use in Chinese BTS. Since the announcement the company has successfully completed trials for China Mobile and China Telecom. The market potential here is vast: China Mobile is the largest mobile operator in the world with 650 million subscribers and China Telecom is the country’s largest fixed-line phone company with over 200 million subscribers.



Fuel cells for telecoms backup power have traditionally been supplied with hydrogen, through either packaged hydrogen cylinders or the refilling of fixed tanks by a trailer. The latter is obviously impractical in both remote areas and those where hydrogen is not commonly delivered for any other purpose. Systems with fuel processors for methanol, an easier to handle fuel than hydrogen, are now offered by companies including Ballard, ReliOn and Altergyand are quickly becoming popular. Ballard reported in April 2013 that sales of methanol-fuelled ElectraGen systems are outstripping those of the hydrogen-fuelled version. Hy9, who provides methanol reformers for the likes of ReliOn and Altergy, in January 2013 announced a collaboration with leading Japanese telecoms equipment supplier Sankosha Corporation to further develop the market for methanol-fuelled telecoms backup solutions in Asia. Methanol is the focus of a previous three-part series of our analyst views.



But what if a backup power system didn’t require any fuel at all? Returning to India, Acta in March 2013 signed a distribution agreement with MVS Energy Solutions, a new business division of MVS Engineering Ltd, India’s largest supplier of industrial gas equipment and solutions, for the distribution of fuel cell backup power solutions with on-site hydrogen generation. The appeal, in particular for remote areas, is obvious: electricity from solar panels or small wind-turbines (or grid electricity if available) is used by an electrolyser to generate hydrogen, continuously replenishing the fuel cell’s store of fuel and allowing for an entirely autonomous system.


Technologies are now advanced enough for such systems to be sold in cabinet form and an increasing number of fuel cell and electrolyser manufacturers are introducing such offerings. Acta launched its Acta Power system at this year’s Hannover Messe and the first system sold is en route to Africa. Acta also supplies electrolyser modules to Germany’s FutureE, whose Jupiter Independence system was revealed a year earlier at 2012’s Hannover Messe. The first commercial system of this type was Electro Power Systems’ ElectroSelf, was launched in February 2010but the concept has steadily been gaining traction since.


Jonathan Wing

Market Analyst



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