Adapting to a Changing Landscape
Over the last few months, the world has seen significant changes, including new heads of state in several countries, Britain’s exit from the EU, shocking acts of terrorism and war and cybercrime of international proportions. Why do I mention these things? Because they all have an impact on our utilities markets and demonstrate how integral our industry is to the health of our nations.
Adding these challenges to more fundamental initiatives to upgrade and better balance the grid, utility businesses of 2017 have significant challenges to meet. What’s more, the introduction of smart meters and a new consumer awareness to energy consumption has led many leading utility companies to investigate new innovative technologies to support their businesses.
One of the most critical challenges is to improve grid reliability. In the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned a “D+” to the US energy infrastructure. It stated that the delivery of electricity in the US relies on an aging and complex patchwork of systems with various ownership and stakeholders. And with the power grid at full capacity, maintenance is paramount.
In 2015, the IEEE reported that Americans experienced a reported 3,571 of total outages, with an average duration of 49 minutes. Momentary blackouts cost the US economy $60 billion, while sustained blackouts cost $50 billion, with some lasting as long as 8 hours or more.
Auxiliary Power for Critical Systems
While electricity blackouts are likely to stay with us for some time, many utilities are now turning to alternative technologies such as fuel cells to provide immediate, reliable and long-term backup power to mitigate the challenges of power outages.
By installing fuel cell solutions like our GenCell G5 long-duration UPS at end-customer sites, utilities can provide clean backup power with the ability to push electricity back to the grid for improved load balancing and higher quality of service (QoS) during peak demand. Another option is for utilities to install fuel cells at their own sites to backup critical systems such as internal communications, command-and-control rooms and substations.
Our GenCell G5rx utility backup power solution is uniquely designed for installation at utility substations. Operating as a direct source of backup power or to recharge back-up battery rooms and keep them at full power for up to 10 times longer, the GenCell G5rx enables substations to keep their breakers and controls in an operational mode so that utilities can quickly restart power, minimizing distribution time to end-users once the grid recovers.
Why are fuel cells important? Well, as a completely clean power generation process, fuel cells are very attractive to utilities not only from a financial perspective in minimizing downtime, but also in supporting their drive to become more sustainable. Fuel cells produce zero-emissions, are silent and vibration free. They are also suited to both extreme environments and urban settings, so they are highly flexible. What’s more, they are extremely reliable, require very low maintenance and can be operated remotely.
Earlier this year, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), part of Sempra, a leading North American energy company, announced that it had been working alongside us to test how fuel cells could contribute to their efforts to be the cleanest, safest, most reliable energy company in America.
In addition to SDG&E, another notable and recent adopter of fuel cell technology includes Israel’s national utility provider, IEC (Israel Electric Company). IEC provides roughly 85% of Israel’s electricity. With many other utilities around the world adopting or seriously evaluating the use of fuel cells within their operations, it’s clear that this technology will be an important solution to one of the industry’s key challenges.
There are still barriers to wide and rapid fuel cell adoption but it’s mainly an issue of education. When talking to prospects, our first job is often to demonstrate that the fuel cell technology employed today is vastly different to that of the 1970’s and 1980’s and much more reliable. With previous impediments to commercialization now resolved, we show them that the modern fuel cell is both robust and affordable.
For many utility companies around the world, the fuel cell business case is so compelling that the cost of a fuel cell to minimize the impact of grid downtime becomes an obvious and sensible decision. With both business continuity and the quest for clean energy, the key issue is not whether they can afford a fuel cell solution, but how they can afford not to have one.
Fuel Cells for the Mainstream
Companies of all types and sizes are already incorporating hydrogen and fuel cells into their businesses. Leading companies such as Apple, Verizon and Coca-Cola are using stationary fuel cells to generate power. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are coming to market with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for consumers and trucking. Metropolitan areas and airports are beginning to migrate to emission-free hydrogen fueled buses. In the USA, the UK and Europe, hydrogen refilling stations are being built, overcoming the challenges of hydrogen distribution for consumers. Indeed, the US Department of Energy notes that hydrogen and fuel cells are on the verge of a “tipping point”.
As we transition into a greener economy increasingly fueled by hydrogen, the cost breakthroughs associated with our patented alkaline fuel cell technology will enable GenCell to deliver fuel cell solutions that are affordable for the mainstream. Our solutions for backup and power-on-demand will overcome the significant weaknesses of other clean technologies such as solar and wind, while also overcoming the limitations of legacy backup power solutions based on batteries and diesel generators that are in use at utilities throughout the world.