An Italian Fuel Cell Maker That Feeds Itself Pushes into Emerging Markets

As demand for mobile phones in developing countries explodes, telecom operators are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure at a rapid pace. The number of base stations, which anchor towers and house equipment, will reach nearly 2.2 million in 2012, about double since 2007, according to GSMA, a mobile operators trade group in London. Each station requires a backup power source to keep network service going in case of a power outage.

Telecoms have long used lead-acid batteries and diesel generators for backup power. Now a dozen or so fuel cell makers are trying to persuade them to use their alternative systems. They say fuel cells, based on a century-old technology, are more reliable, perform longer, and are cleaner than traditional backup sources.

To distinguish itself from the pack, Electro Power Systems, a 7-year-old manufacturer in the northern Italian city of Turin, is wooing would-be clients with what it says are the first fuel cell systems that don’t require an external fuel supply. Its systems bundle together fuel cells and an electrolyzer, another veteran technology, to generate their own fuel, hydrogen. The company’s most recent innovation: hooking the system to wind turbines and solar panels to harness their energy to make the hydrogen.

Developing an all-in-one system that uses energy from renewables to produce and store hydrogen “is the holy grail for a lot of [fuel cell] companies," says Kerry-Ann Adamson, a director at cleantech research and consulting firm Pike Research, which is headquarted in Boulder, Colorado. ElectroPS is the only company with “a commercially available unit in that package," she says. “They are leading the way in that area."

Housed in a cube-shaped cabinet that measures about 1 cubic meter, the ElectroPS system works like this: When there’s a blackout, the fuels cells kick in, generating electricity and water from hydrogen and oxygen. The water is stored in tanks until the grid comes back on or, in the newest iteration, when a renewable source is available. Then the electrolzyer passes an electrical current through the water to produce more hydrogen and oxygen, which is kept in vessels until needed by the fuel cells during the next blackout. The self-contained system requires little maintenance beyond an annual top-up of water.

Adamson forecasts the market for fuel cell backup units for telecom installations to balloon to $3.6 billion by 2017, from $38 million in 2010. ElectroPS had sales of $4.5 million in 2010 and $6 million in 2011, says founder and Chief Executive Adriano Marconetto, 51. He launched the company with three scientists at the Politecnico di Torino in 2005 after learning about the technology through his previous startup, an Italian designer of clean energy systems that imported fuel cells from the U.S. The 50-employee company will become profitable in 2015, he says.

One early adopter, Telecom Italia, Italy’s largest telecom, bought its first fuel cell system from ElectroPS in 2009. It now owns 250 of the systems and will buy approximately 50 more in 2012, says Alberto Landucci, who is in charge of energy saving initiatives at Telecom Italia in Rome. He says the ElectroPS fuel cell unit is “simple, reliable,” and an improvement on traditional battery backup because it lasts longer, costs less to operate, and can work in locations with high temperatures. Diesel generators, which may be 40 percent cheaper to buy than fuel cells, ultimately cost more in fuel, soundproofing, maintenance, and pollution checks, he says.

The most expensive ElectroPS system, with power output of 12 kilowatts, or enough to back up a large base station shared by different operators, costs up to €25,000. Customers typically recoup their investment in less than three years, Marconetto says.

“The cost is up front," says Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing, Michigan. The city spent $35,000 on an ElectroPS unit in 2011 for backup power to a public safety radio system; a battery would have cost less than half that. “As we replace our other equipment, we would consider buying more" fuel cells when the budget allows, says Bernero, noting the long-term savings.

More than 600 installations around the world use ElectroPS fuel cells, nearly half in emerging markets, says Marconetto. ElectroPS, which sold its first system in Germany in 2007, focused on telecom operators because “they understand the importance of backup," says Marconetto. “Soon we realized the biggest opportunities were in emerging areas, especially in Asia." He expects the “vast majority" of future sales to come from those regions. India is adding 3 million mobile subscribers a month, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

“There’s such a colossal growth in mobile subscribers" in developing countries, says David Hart, a director at sustainable energy consulting company E4tech in Lausanne, Switzerland. Where the grid isn’t reliable and backup power is needed more frequently and for longer periods, "there’s more room for companies like EPS," he says.

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