Fuel Cell Stacks

When major snowstorms cause shutdowns and blackouts in the Northeast, power utilities can turn to resilient backup power from alkaline fuel cells

The first major snowstorm of 2021 brought power outages in New Jersey, a state of emergency in 44 counties in New York state and the largest recorded snowfall at Chicago O’Hare Airport since 2015. Major airlines canceled service to most NYC airports and Pennsylvania also expected heavy snowstorms according to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. The White House staff made contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to monitor the storm.

Carlo Allegri | Reuters

Unsurprisingly, the economic impact of severe weather events in conjunction with power outages is substantial. A report by FEMA that assessed the scale of the damage from power outages estimated that around 40-60% of small businesses close permanently after a storm and that 90% of businesses which close for just five days following an extreme weather event, eventually fail within a year. A report conducted by the Congressional Research Service concluded that weather-related outages cost the U.S. as much as $70 billion annually. Faced every year with heavy snowstorms, hurricanes and other severe weather incidents that cause frequent shutdowns and blackouts, power utilities across the U.S. require resilient backup power to weather the storms.

Given that the United States is enduring progressively severe natural weather events with every year that passes, power utilities must invest in resilient backup power technologies to avoid outages and restore power as quickly as possible when outages occur. For this reason, smart utilities are today deploying weather-resistant fuel cells that also 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. These batteries provide backup power to substations’ critical systems to minimize power disruption and the high costs associated with energy blackouts as well as to enable 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 rely on diesel generators.

Alkaline fuel cells offer a cleaner, quieter solution with a smaller footprint; they 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, fuel cells are extremely low-maintenance solutions. They can also be installed with remote management software that leverages IoT sensors to analyze and monitor remote substations’ performance from a central location. In this way they can provide full visibility into system health and always show the duration of backup power available to each substation. Because they substantially extend battery run-time, fuel cells give the utility’s maintenance team enough time to restore power to all customers of a substation—not just the critical ones. Having this extended runtime significantly reduces the stress level for the utilities’ technical and maintenance teams.

Another reason that utilities appreciate fuel cell backup solutions is the fact that they are a clean source of energy. In contrast to diesel generators with CO2 emissions, fuel cells emit only water. They help utilities to comply with climate directives and meet with the approval of many environmentally-oriented consumers.  Challenged each year by more inclement weather and increasingly severe storms, U.S. power utilities can optimize their auxiliary power systems with alkaline fuel cells for resilient, long-duration and emission-free backup power.