12-11-07 Extreme Weather and Fuel Cell Backup Power

Extreme Weather and Fuel Cell Backup Power

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07 Nov 2012PDF (419 kb)

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12-11-07 Extreme Weather and Fuel Cell Backup Power

Last week Superstorm Sandy hit US shores, bringing widespread devastation in its wake. Eight million homes in the US Northeast were left without power after storm surges flooded substations, blew transformers and destroyed power lines. Unfortunately, many backup generator systems also failed due to flooding. Most notably, backup generators at the New York University Langone Medical Center failed resulting in an evacuation of patients, two hundred of whom had to rely on battery-powered life support.

Many establishments rely on diesel-powered backup systems, but these are limited by the amount of diesel kept on site. A lot of businesses, such as small data centre owners, only keep enough fuel on site for a few hours of runtime – sufficient to cover conventional grid outages. Several hours after the storm hit websites as recognisable as the Huffington Post and Bloomberg News were down after a data centre in New York’s Financial District flooded, destroying its backup power.

A fuel cell backup power system is no more waterproof than a generator, and as such is no more advantageous at basement level in case of flooding. Some diesel backup systems are located high in buildings, but the units themselves have limited fuel reservoirs – additional fuel will be delivered at ground level and is often stored there, to be pumped or carried further up the building when needed. As The Verge notes in its article Post-hurricane, New York’s internet industry runs on diesel’, a data centre on Eighth Avenue had backup power that was supposed to last for 85 hours, but flooding damaged the fuel pumps and the data centre went offline after just a few hours.

Most stationary fuel cells are fuelled by mains gas. The natural gas grid is relatively safe from extreme weather events. Running underground, the pressurised distribution network is susceptible to earthquake damage just like the electricity grid, but it is largely protected from overground events such as high winds, storm surges and flooding that more commonly interfere with the electricity grid. A pressurised fuel supply means that no mechanical pumps are required in order to get the fuel up a building – so long as the pipes and valves are well protected from impact damage there is no reason why a fuel cell high in a building would stop working during an event such as Sandy.

Indeed, UTC Power reported to Fuel Cells 2000 on the 1st November that all of the 23 systems it has installed in the New England and New York area affected by Sandy continued running in either grid connected or grid independent modes throughout the storm, with just one unit temporarily offline following a fan failure. Three days after the storm struck, two of the systems were continuing to run independently in locations where grid connectivity had yet to be restored. Before the storm hit the US, it passed through the Bahamas over a three day period during which seventeen Ballard ElectraGen systems operated flawlessly, keeping the local telcom network online throughout a prolonged grid failure.

Fuel Cell Today has seen an increasing number of large data centre owners including Apple invest in natural gas powered fuel cell backup power systems, thanks to their efficiency and reliability. With such reliable power provision it is perhaps unsurprising that earlier this year eBay announced that a new data centre at its flagship Utah site would draw its prime power from a 6 MW natural gas fed Bloom Energy fuel cell installation. In this model, the electricity grid is demoted to the role of backup and the capital of the fuel cells is offset by the displacement of large, expensive backup generators that the online auction house claims were utilised for less than 1% of the year.

Buildings powered by fuel cells, such as the Central Park police station and the NASDAQ stock market at 4 Time Square, were some of the few that remained illuminated during New York’s last major blackout in 2003. Natural disasters often highlight the shortcomings of incumbent systems and are perhaps the best proving ground of the robustness of fuel cell power. The current interest in fuel cells for backup power at telecoms base stations in the US originated from the failing of conventional systems during Hurricane Katrina, which left thousands without cell service during a time of extreme need. The case for fuel cell backup power has never been more apparent.


Jonathan Wing     Market Analyst




Photo: Blackout in Manhattan after Sandy hit on October 29th 2012 (Source: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)


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