Phone Companies Developing Fuel Cells, Too

With all the attention on fuel cell startup Bloom Energy this week, you might think that Bloom invented the fuel cell. But many industries, in particular phone companies, have been developing and using the technology for some time already — as backup power for cellular base stations. In a testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Tuesday morning, for example, Sprint (s S) 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 it plans to install more.

Sprint actually owns 15 hydrogen fuel cell patents, the company tells us, and started installing fuel cells back in 2005. The phone company received a $7.3 million grant from the Department of Energy out of the stimulus funds last April to expand that fuel cell project and boost the time that the fuel cells can provide backup power, to 72 hours from 15.

The backup power fuel cells start up if service from the utility stops due to weather or natural disasters. As we saw during Hurricane Katrina, it’s crucial for the communications systems to stay powered during these extreme events (literally a matter of life and death) for both first responders and the local 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 consumes about 80 percent 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.

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 Corp.; 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 Startups Hot on Bloom Energy’s Trail).

Munich, Germany-based hydrogen-powered fuel cell maker P21 has also been developing fuel cells specifically for the backup cellular power market. P21 was spun out of Vodafone in 2001, raised 10 million euros ($13.6 million) in May 2009 from Yellow & Blue Investment Management, Target Partners and Conduit Ventures, and 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, sub req’d).

Sprint is also looking to create an efficient ecosystem for refilling the 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.

Image courtesy of P21.

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