Sempra to Use Moon-Mission Technology to Back Up Substations

  • GenCell to install fuel cells at utility substations
  • Fuel cell backup systems can provide power for 24 hours

GenCell G5rx at SDG&E

Source: SDG&E

Sempra Energy’s San Diego utility unit is turning to a technology used during the Apollo moon missions to provide backup power for its systems: hydrogen fuel cells.

San Diego Gas & Electric has enlisted GenCell, an Israel-based developer, to install fuel cells that will power its substations during an outage.

The systems provide a way to make the utility’s systems more reliable during a power failure. The deal comes less than a month after the U.S. Energy Department warned that the nation’s grid is vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated.

The utility currently uses lead-acid batteries, which provide backup power for as long as eight hours. “If the outage lasts longer, we need to run out conventional fuel generators,” said Jonathan Woldemariam, San Diego Gas & Electric’s director of electric transmission and distribution engineering. “The fuel-cell technology will replace having to roll out the diesel generators.”

GenCell will initially install its G5rx backup fuel cells at three San Diego Gas & Electric substations, and plans to have them at 30 substations within three years, Woldemariam said.

GenCell’s fuel cells produce 5 kilowatt-hours of power and can remain in operation for more than 24 hours. They can use industrial hydrogen instead of medical-grade hydrogen and don’t use platinum, which is common in other fuel-cell technologies and can drive up costs.

The systems will be housed in 10-foot (3-meter) containers with two compartments, one for the fuel cells and controls, the other for hydrogen tanks. The units have a list price of about $100,000 each. Gil Shavit, GenCell’s chairman, declined to provide details on the deal with San Diego Gas & Electric.

Fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen through a chemical process, which gives them an edge over the current battery systems, he said.

“Batteries are just an accumulator,” Shavit said in an interview. “We are a generator.”

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