Fuel cell maker wants telcos to get the lead out

CHICAGO'A maker of hydrogen fuel cells wants to replace banks of batteries as the backup power source of choice for telecom applications.

'Government has been very interested in helping to test this technology,' said Cynthia Mahoney White, marketing manager for Plug Power Inc. of Latham, N.Y.

The Energy Department has funded several tests at military sites for the company's GenSys primary power generation system, and the Long Island Power Authority also is testing it. But what the company is promoting at the SuperComm tradeshow this week is a new backup power generator called GenCore designed to compete with lead-acid batteries.

Hydrogen fuel cells are receiving a lot of attention as a possible alternative energy source, but they still are an emerging technology without a strong customer base. So Plug Power decided it makes better economic sense to focus its attention on a lower priced backup power system to help create a market for the hydrogen power.

'This is the first time the fuel cell has been incorporated into this type of a system,' said Mahoney White. 'We felt the telecom niche was one we could compete in.'

Power cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, releasing energy in the form of heat and electricity. The water and heat are byproducts, and the electricity can be used to power anything from a car to a hair dryer. The Plug Power products use a system called a proton exchange membrane to make this conversion.

Both GenSys and GenCore produce 5kW of power. But GenSys contains a device to convert natural gas to hydrogen, allowing a facility with a natural gas supply to use it as a primary power generator. GenCore uses stored hydrogen and can be used in a remote site as a backup power source with a limited life.

'The biggest challenge has been getting the cost out of the system,' Mahoney White said. The GenSys product originally cost about $150,000 when it was introduced in 1999. That price now is down to $50,000 to $75,000. The GenCore sells for $14,995, which is competitive with batteries and more likely to find a quick market, the company feels.

Telecommunications infrastructures typically use lead-acid batteries for this. Traditional wired phones and cellular phones work during power outages because backup power is provided to a central office or a cellular base station. During last summer's Northeast blackout, phone service began to fail when the blackout outlived backup battery life at these sites.

Plug Power is touting GenCore as a flexible, economical and environmentally friendly alternative to batteries. A system with six 49.6-liter cylinders of hydrogen will operate for 12 hours at 5kW, or 36 hours at 1.2kW.

5kW is about enough to run a 2,500-square-foot home with energy-efficient appliances, Mahoney White said. 'It can't provide backup for an entire hospital, but it can run a cell tower.'

The up-front cost for GenCore is a little more than the $11,000 to $15,000 for a battery system, but Plug Power projects it will have a 10-year life, about twice as long as a battery system, with a lower maintenance cost.

Verizon Communications Inc. of New York is using GenCore to back up a substation serving 800 phone lines. But so far, both GenSys and GenCore are being used primarily in test situations as Plug Power works to build public awareness and a track record for its products.

'How do we know it will last 10 years?' Mahoney White said. 'We don't know.' The company is hoping that in 10 years, a lot of people will know.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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