April 25, 2017
Challenging the status quo can be difficult, and redefining it can be transformative. After all, it hasn’t always been the norm to video chat around the world in the palm of your hand. Superior technology, however, does not guarantee status quo-breaking success.
In 2007, U.S. Navy weapons researchers developed a revolutionary advancement in gun technology called railgun. Railgun uses electricity instead of gunpowder to fire projectiles at speeds up to Mach 7, at ranges 10 times farther than current naval guns and with greater accuracy. Railgun is safer to operate and is effective against multiple threats, but naval leaders did not take the technology seriously, essentially because the program could not break through the status quo.
Elizabeth D’Andrea, Ph.D., the Navy’s program officer at the time, realized most of the challenges railgun faced were based on misperceptions, uninformed opinions or a lack of awareness. She launched a communications effort aimed specifically at challenging the status quo, and the Office of Naval Research now attributes much of the railgun program’s success to that educational outreach.
Batteries and generators have been the critical power status quo for decades. Neither technology has changed substantially, though the demands placed on backup power systems have grown over time. Consider the loads and system complexity when batteries and generators became entrenched as the go-to backup power choices in the mid-1960s. We were not then a digital society dependent on 24/7 connectivity across vast wireless networks.
Time to Reimagine
It’s time to look at the critical power status quo more critically.
Valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries and diesel generators have well-documented, widely accepted performance issues. Heat drains VRLA batteries like replacement batteries drain budgets. Even with exhaustive maintenance, VRLA batteries don’t typically run long enough to protect modern networks. Battery renewal contracts have become as inevitable as death and taxes, yet the incredible inertial power of the status quo makes the buy/maintain/replace cycle remarkably difficult to break.
But norms do change.
Fuel cell technology has long held significant critical power potential because of its zero-emission performance and lack of moving parts. The knock against fuel cells has been that they were fragile, expensive and hand-assembled, so they couldn’t be mass-produced or widely deployed. Conventional fuel cells posed no threat to the status quo.
Today’s advanced fuel cell technology, however, envisions a world where the critical power norm is clean, safe, sustainable and cost-effective power on demand. To reimagine the critical power status quo, fuel cell technology itself had to be reimagined.
Advanced fuel cell technology produces consistent power through an electrochemical reaction between naturally abundant hydrogen and oxygen. As with conventional fuel cells, there are no emissions. Advanced fuel cell technology replaces fragile parts with rugged components, incorporates integrated membrane bonding and infinitely more efficient flex-plate electrical contacts, and features a compact footprint that allows a 5-kilowatt system unit to fit virtually anywhere a standard microwave oven can.
Perhaps most significantly, advanced fuel cell technology uses an automated robotic fuel cell assembly line. The combination of stronger components, compact design and automated assembly can reduce costs by as much as 80 percent, compared with traditional fuel cells. Compared with VRLA batteries and diesel generators, advanced fuel cell technology can reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) by as much as 50 percent.
Powering a Status Quo Breakthrough
Fuel cell reliability is well established. The U.S. military and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have trusted advanced fuel cell technology for many years. Advanced fuel cell technology has successfully provided uninterrupted power to cell towers during normal outages and during the aftermath of natural disasters when legacy technologies failed, including Hurricanes Sandy and Joaquin and the South Napa earthquake.
The reliability is there, proven in extreme temperatures and severe weather. The savings are evident through reduced capital expense, lower maintenance expenses and TCO analyses.
Yet, the status quo remains powerful and, somehow, comfortable — until battery contracts come up for renewal or the rules on diesel generator emissions change again. That pain is predictable.
What’s been missing — and prevented advanced fuel cell technology from truly breaking through — has been the corporate hammer: the directive that motivates change and makes it safe to evaluate alternatives to the status quo. That may be changing as businesses increasingly identify sustainability as a corporate value and align investments accordingly.
Advanced fuel cell technology offers other advantages: installation that takes hours instead of days, runtimes from hours to months on a single fill-up, quiet operation, inherent scalability, greater deployment flexibility (the compact footprint simplifies rooftop installations in urban locations and rugged durability is well suited for remote antenna sites) and low maintenance that is mostly air filter replacements once a year. But the ability to lower an organization’s carbon footprint? Being zero-emission green and quiet? That sets advanced fuel cell technology apart and may power a status quo breakthrough.
Acceptance as a Backup Solution
Reliability was the top priority when a large telecom installation in Florida switched its backup power to advanced fuel cell technology in 2016. On-demand power must, by definition, be available on demand. Ultimately, the critical power solution that goes beyond reliability requirements, that demonstrates environmental responsibility and that represents a commitment to sustainability was deemed to provide the greatest value.
Hundreds of cell towers nationwide relied on backup power from advanced fuel cells in 2016, with that number growing every month as fuel cell use reaches wider acceptance. Advanced fuel cells have replaced VRLA batteries and diesel generators in more than 8.3 million watts of applications and have logged more than 32 million hours of runtime.
Fuels cells’ acceptance as a backup power solution may receive a boost from what’s happening in the automotive sector. Every major automotive manufacturer is developing models powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the same hydrogen that powers fuel cells for critical power. Perhaps Toyota, Honda and Ford putting fuel cells right under our seats will finally lay to rest misguided hydrogen-safety concerns that have lingered for years.
The buy/maintain/replace cycle can be broken. Modern networks can be supported by 21st-century technology that delivers cost savings, performance and enterprise value improvements.
Revolutionary designs and proven performance have put a new spotlight on advanced fuel cell technology. Green initiatives and sustainability’s ascension among corporate values may provide the impetus to usher in a new critical power reality, revealing an exciting new future for backup power.
Andrea Humes is marketing director at Altergy Systems. The Folsom, California-based company provides reliable backup power solutions for telecom and critical power applications. Humes’ email address is email@example.com.