Fuel Cells: Ensuring that Utilities Fully Deliver on their Core Promise to Customers
While public utilities today are asked to handle an onslaught of different challenges in today’s dynamic energy sector, at the core – the most important way that utilities take care of their customers is by providing reliable and resilient power. More flexible billing solutions, electricity consumption data and energy efficiency equipment certainly provide value to utility customers, but fundamentally the way that utilities care for their customers is by doing everything possible to keep their power operational. For this reason, some utilities are today deploying fuel cells to extend the duration of their substation battery backup.
By design, typically substations are equipped with backup lead acid batteries that open up circuit breakers upon sensing a power loss. To minimize power disruption and the very high costs associated with energy blackouts, utilities have traditionally relied on lead-acid batteries to provide backup power to substations’ critical systems. Keeping these systems online enables a quicker return to power once the grid returns.
But batteries have a critical weakness: a typical battery room can only provide backup power for four to eight hours. In many cases, this is simply not enough time for the grid to return and for the field engineers to fix damaged power lines and equipment. To overcome the power shortfall, a utility could either install more space-intensive battery rooms or buy noisy, pollutant diesel generators to continually recharge existing batteries and extend their run-time.
“For many years, diesel generators were a necessary and crucial technology, but they represented a significant compromise to our environmental aspirations. They also need a large, expensive service infrastructure to keep them reliable,” remarked one utility executive. During prolonged outages, typically the utility would have to dispatch these diesel generators and estimate how long they would need to operate.
By offering a cleaner, quieter solution with a smaller footprint and by indicating exactly the duration of power available at any and every moment, fuel cells help utilities better serve their customers’ core needs. Fuel cell backup solutions produce auxiliary power that kicks in automatically should the grid go down and provide quick start-up once the power outage ends. Fueled by standard cylinders of industrial-grade hydrogen, fuel cells emit no CO2 and run ten times longer than traditional backup power sources.
In addition to being extremely-weather resistant and resilient, the fuel cells are low-maintenance solutions that can be used in both extreme environments and urban settings. By enabling utilities to use IoT sensors to analyze and monitor their substations from remote locations, providing full visibility into system health and the duration of backup power available to each substation, the fuel cells make sure that utilities deliver on their primary responsibility to their customers.
According to one utility spokesperson, “Previously we only had the capacity to first restore our critical customers — our hospitals, police stations and fire stations. The fuel cells extend our battery run-time by 900% and let us more quickly restore power to all customers of a substation—not just the critical ones.”
By extending backup power runtime, the fuel cells significantly lowered the stress level of the technical teams. “If the grid goes down and there is a loss of power, the extended battery life provided by the fuel cell solution gives our technical team the confidence that they’ll be able to restore power in a timely fashion,” explained the spokesperson. “This was an unexpected yet very positive benefit of the fuel cell solution.”
This same utility found another key benefit of the fuel cell deployment to be blackstart corridor restoration support. In the event that the utility needed to start a blackstart unit in a particular location where diesel generators were not available to provide a frequency reference, the fuel cells were able to work together to help provide a coherent frequency and energy signal that could be used to start blackstart units. Once the fuel cell provided a reference signal, additional next start units were able to continue to come online in sequence as part of a normal blackstart corridor restoration process. Again – fuel cells help the utility avoid critical emergency situations.
Utility customers appreciate fuel cells not only for reliability, but for being a clean source of energy. In contrast to diesel backup systems, fuel cells emit only water. They help utilities to comply with climate directives and meet with the approval of many environmentally-oriented consumers.
One utility executive sums it up this way: “We recognize that every second during a power outage is a disruption for our customers. By shortening outages for all customers, fuel cell technology allows utilities to increase their reliability. Fuel cell innovation ultimately improves the lives of the customers and communities we serve by advancing utilities’ efforts to ensure continued excellence in reliable energy service.”
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