A representational image of a charging battery

Fuel Cells Can Play a Role in the Smart Utility of the Future

This paper proposes the spotlight is turning to fuel cells. Relying on batteries alone for long duration back-up power is not enough. To further reduce the impact of power outages and improve consumer service, San Diego Gas & Electric is currently rolling-out fuel cells.

There are many challenges facing the world and one of the most prominent is climate change. No matter where you sit on this debate, one thing is undeniable — severe weather incidents occur more than they used to. For the modern utility provider, these weather issues are a challenge in their own right, but when you add the wider goal of eradicating fossil fuel use and preparing for the electrification of our lives, you can see that the utility industry faces considerable change. To support this transition, new technologies including wind turbines, solar panels and fuel cells are being introduced by forward thinking utilities.  

In the case of fuel cells, these utility businesses are using the technology to provide long duration back-up power for their command control centers and unmanned facilities, such as substations and telecommunication sites. In many cases, these solutions also include Smart UPS features, enabling them to be monitored, controlled and maintained remotely — dramatically improving power resilience.   

Traditionally, UPS batteries have been the backup power of choice for these businesses. However, with issues, including battery age and maintenance, affecting a battery’s state of charge (SOC) status, the expected eight hours of battery backup power can very quickly turn into less than a half.

During a sustained outage and when there’s no way to recharge those batteries, it’s a race against time to get the primary power supply back up. Polluting diesel generators have been typically used to back up the batteries, but they require very regular maintenance and can be an unreliable failsafe. The alternative is to face a very time-consuming, costly and asset damaging ‘black start scenario’. For obvious reasons, this is something that every utility seeks to prevent.

As such, many utilities now realize that relying on batteries alone to keep their critical systems running, especially during or just post a severe weather issue, is simply not good enough. This is where, thanks to their unique ability to work in harmony with batteries, the spotlight is turning to fuel cells. As an insurance policy for utility battery rooms, these fuel cells ensure that during power outages of almost any duration, UPS batteries remain fully charged and operational.

How do they achieve that? Well, contrary to storing chemical energy like a battery, a fuel cell actually generates energy itself. Fuel cells are disconnected loads and they only become energy contributors when grid power is lost. In the event of an outage, they automatically and immediately supply energy to the batteries – essentially, they become a DC battery charger. For as long as they’re supplied with fuel (hydrogen) and oxygen, fuel cells can continuously generate electricity. In the case of our own solution with a standard set of hydrogen tanks, this is for up to 10 times longer than normal battery rooms.

For the utility business, this uninterrupted power means that substations can keep their breakers and critical controls in an operational mode. This enables them to quickly restart power remotely and minimize distribution to end-users once the grid recovers. To do this successfully, fluent communication between the substations is essential, and therefore, ensuring that all communication equipment is kept operational during an outage is of upmost importance. The combined technology offering, effectively immunizes all utility substations – especially those that are carrying the black start corridor.

In minimizing power interruption with a completely clean energy power generation process, fuel cells are not only very attractive to utilities from a financial perspective, but also in supporting the global drive to become more sustainable.

And in enabling that, another compelling incentive in the United States comes from the recent reintroduction of the 30% tax credit. Designed to support companies investing in renewable energy technologies, this effectively means that highly-reliable alkaline fuel cells are now more affordable than ever.

One of the more notable companies pioneering the use of fuel cells within utility substations, is San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). The North American energy provider is currently rolling-out GenCell fuel cells to further reduce the impact of power outages, improve consumer service and further demonstrate its commitment to sustainability. Providing critical backup power to key regional substations, the SDG&E fuel cells are designed to keep its operating systems running throughout long duration power outages – limiting expensive and time-consuming damage to equipment and enabling it to restore grid power significantly faster.

Smart UPS

Unlike batteries where you can’t be certain of how much charge is remaining, and therefore how much time you have left during an outage, you can easily monitor the fuel cells’ hydrogen usage by measuring the pressure in each cylinder. Crucially, using fuel cells from a company such as ours, this information as well as other performance monitoring, analysis and other basic service routines, can all be managed and performed remotely utilizing IoT smart capabilities.

Operationally, this makes management of these assets a lot easier, more predictable, more reliable and a lot more cost effective.

Behind-The-Meter

There is also another use for fuel cells emerging, and that’s within the ‘behind-the-meter’ remit. We are seeing a lot of interest from utilities in proactively selling clean fuel cell power to businesses who suffer from being situated in poor grid areas. By offering them ultra-reliable long-duration backup power, businesses can reduce their dependency on the grid and become more resilient during an outage, ensuring they maintain business continuity. Furthermore, utilities are helping these businesses eradicate the use of polluting diesel generators and reduce their carbon footprint by enabling them to generate electricity 'locally' from clean energy sources.

In essence, fuel cells offer utilities a way to operate a smart business. Not only can they increase the resiliency of their substations during an outage, but fuel cells can also provide an additional revenue stream for utilities behind the meter. With a global pressure to increase sustainability and the impact of climate change more evident than ever, fuel cells can provide utilities a solution where power reliability, customer service and profitability do not have to be compromised by going green.

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