Ditching diesel: the fuel cell alternative

One issue that affects telecom deployments all over the world is power, but the problem of unreliable power supplies is particularly prevalent in emerging markets. Challenging terrain and poor quality electricity grids have resulted in the spread of expensive and polluting diesel generators, but many emerging markets are now waking up to the possibilities of green power solutions. DT editor James Barton spoke to Nicholas Pocard, APAC Sales Director at Idatech, about how green power supplies can help the environment as well as save operators money – and how this could be the key to widespread adoption.

DT: What are the issues prompting greater uptake of green power in emerging markets?

NP: There is a massive need for backup power in emerging markets, and the lack of legacy architecture means that technical problems are more likely to be solved with innovative solutions. In most developed countries these problems aren’t pressing; the grid in Europe and the US is fairly good, so while they do need backup power it’s not as important as it is in developing countries, and there are fewer community issues so it’s less urgent.

Most of the biggest deployments that we’re seeing today are in countries that have problems with their grid, or are afflicted by major natural disasters. If the grid is going down on a daily basis, or there is a typhoon or earthquake, that’s when people really need to invest in backup power as the existing solutions – diesel generators and batteries – don’t always meet requirements.

DT: Can fuel cells adequately replace these established backup power supplies?

NP: We have deployed 262 fuel cell systems in Indonesia for Hutchison - across Java and Sumatra – and these are used to back up critical base stations for Hutchison’s Indonesia network, replacing diesel generators. Grid quality is poor in Indonesia, there are many power cuts – often daily, sometimes weekly – so backup solutions for power are essential.

Hutchison didn’t want to use diesel generators anymore for a variety of reasons – they had a lot of issues with theft, maintenance cost, noise complaints from the local communities. Fuel cells allow you to get away from these issues as they are very quiet and contain very few moving parts – the only moving part is a fan providing air to the unit. As for theft, diesel is commonly stolen, with around 15-30% of generator fuel being siphoned off – people take it from the site, even the people delivering it may take some for themselves – and as soon as the site runs out of diesel, it goes down.

Fuel cells use either methanol or hydrogen gas, and neither of these have any commercial application – it would be useless for people to steal it as they cannot use it directly. We’ve had people break in to fuel cell cabinets, but there’s nothing to steal so they left it intact.

DT: If emerging markets are a test bed for new solutions, does this allow developed markets to be more dismissive of new tech? Are the cost and the effort of replacing established infrastructure/solutions too great?

NP: In developing countries, where there’s a new network, people are more open to the latest technology. I’ve found that operators in Europe are more conservative than in Asia for example – embracing a new technology is a much longer process for them, the adoption cycle is much longer. In Asia and other emerging economies, people are more open to new technologies and willing to take risks because they have more acute problems. I think people are willing to go with ‘faster and bolder’ when it comes to new tech.

DT: Do you think that cynicism in the developed world towards green solutions can be overturned by deployments in emerging markets?

NP: I think that governments will probably need to offer incentives and penalties if they are to effect change – for example, there’s a new carbon tax in Australia. People are comfortable in developed countries – in emerging markets, new technology is put into effect to solve problems, but these problems are typically far less acute in developed countries. I think that widespread adoption of green solutions will only occur if governments offer tax breaks and other incentives.

In the US for example, measures such as these are in effect, but it’s been the only way to get operators using fuel cells. There’s a federal programme that will pay up to 30% of the cost of a fuel cell system based on the fact that it’s environmentally friendly.

Although by and large these incentives are absent from emerging markets, countries such as Malaysia and Philippines will waive the import tax on equipment that is classified as a ‘green’ product; while this is usually only around 10% it’s a good start.

DT: Do you think cynicism would be overturned by a country such as China – an industrial powerhouse and also a high-profile polluter – adopting green solutions on a widespread scale? How likely is this to happen?

NP: It could easily happen in China – the government is very centralised so the decision could happen very quickly. There have been small scale projects such as the green cities, but wide scale adoption could yet happen. China can bring the volume that nobody else can – such a well-known polluter adopting green power would get a lot of others on board.

One of the advantages of fuel cells is that they are generators but they don’t have an engine, so it can provide power for a very long time – it can be a few minutes or a few days, it doesn’t need to be recharged like a battery. However, on the inside they are a bit like batteries – they’re electro-chemical devices with no oil, no piston, and no moving parts. Converting the chemical energy into electricity, then chemical fuel into power provides better efficiency than a generator by at least 10 – 20%.

The low number of moving parts not only makes the cells quieter, but reduces the need for maintenance – a major issue for generators, which simply won’t start if they aren’t serviced correctly and frequently. The combination of high efficiency and low maintenance costs therefore dramatically reduces the operating cost – and at the end of the day, the decision to adopt fuel cells is financially driven. Operators can save a lot on fuel consumption and operating costs, which makes for a quick return on investment.

Developing countries are where we see the biggest markets today. The telecom industry is conservative – for them to switch is a challenge, so younger countries without the legacy networks are more likely to move faster to new technologies.

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