Phone Companies Are Developing Fuel Cells, Too

With all the attention on fuel cell startup Bloom Energy this week, you might think Bloom invented the fuel cell. Many industries, particularly phone companies, have been developing and using the technology for some time as backup power for cellular base stations. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on Tuesday, for example, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse explained how Sprint has been using 250 hydrogen fuel cells at cell sites "in an effort to produce green backup power during commercial power outages" and said the company plans to install more.

Sprint owns 15 hydrogen fuel cell patents, the company tells us, and started installing fuel cells back in 2005. Last April the phone company received a $7.3 million grant in stimulus funds from the Energy Dept. to expand its fuel cell project and boost the time that fuel cells could provide backup power from 15 hours to 72.

The backup power fuel cells start up if service from the utility stops because of weather problems or other natural disasters. As we saw during Hurricane Katrina, it's crucial for communications systems to remain powered during such extreme events—literally a matter of life and death—for both first responders and the community.

Phone companies are turning to fuel cells because they can be used as a greener, quieter, and potentially cheaper replacement for backup diesel generators—the standard backup power for cellular networks. Sprint's network accounts for about 80% of its total energy use, so it has been the company's "biggest priority" in terms of finding energy improvement, Hesse said during his testimony.

Vodaphone spinoff P21 active, too

Sprint has been working with hydrogen fuel cell providers and tank manufacturers for the fuel cell backup power project, specifically with fuel cell makers ReliOn and Altergy and hydrogen provider Air Products, the company tells us.ReliOn is a Spokane (Wash.)-based startup that was spun out of utility Avista; it makes proton exchange membrane-based fuel cells in the 300-watt to 12-kilowatt range for commercial and industrial backup power.ReliOn is backed by PCG Clean Energy & Technology Fund, Robeco, Oak Investment Partners, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, Enterprise Partners Venture Capital, and Wall Street Technology Partners.(See 10 Fuel Cell Startups Hot on Bloom Energy's Trail).

Munich-based hydrogen-powered fuel cell maker P21 has also been developing fuel cells specifically for the backup cellular power market.P21, which was spun out of Vodafone in 2001, raised €10 million ($13.6 million) in May 2009 from Yellow & Blue Investment Management, Target Partners, and Conduit Ventures.It says it has been testing its fuel cells in the field since 2004.(For more research on fuel cells and other tech to make telecom networks greener, check out GigaOM Pro—subscription required).

Sprint is also looking to create an efficient ecosystem for refilling fuel cell hydrogen tanks. Sprint's Senior Vice-President of Network Bob Azzi wrote in Energy Biz recently that Sprint is looking to work with business partners to "create a new commercially viable hydrogen refueling model that is built around on-site refueling, or 'bumping,' instead of the current practice of swapping out the tanks." Such a system can reduce the cost of extending the backup power if need be.

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