Sprint to start installing fuel cells on rooftops to back up its mobile networks

Sprint(s s) is no stranger to the hydrogen fuel cell. Since 2005, it’s installed 500 cells at the bases of its towers, replacing the diesel generators that back up its network in case of a power outage. But on Tuesday Sprint announced it was raising its fuel cells efforts to a new level – quite literally. It’s installing them on rooftops.

Rooftops are significant because they’re often the prime cellular real estate in downtown urban markets, where buildings are the highest structures in sight. They also present their own unique set of logistical problems. It’s not difficult to install a generator at the base of tower and refuel it from a truck, but you can’t say the same for a cell site atop of five-story building. Installing or replacing a generator involves  a heavy crane, and refueling can’t be done with a hose. Instead it involves transporting fuel up five flights.

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Meanwhile fuel cells are modular and lightweight, and Sprint claims it has devised an installation plan that allows their hydrogen stores to be refueled from the ground, obviating the need to move tanks of diesel through hallways and elevators. Sprint estimated that 25 percent of its cell sites are located on rooftops, and in major metro areas that number is even higher.

Sprint won’t install fuel cells at all of those sites, and it said it is still determining the financial and operational scope of the project. The U.S. Department of Energy is helping fund the project – it awarded Sprint a $7.3 million clean energy research grant in 2009 – and Sprint said the main goal of the project is explore economically viable ways to deploy fuel cells in mobile networks on a large-scale. Sprint plans to begin its first rooftop installations before the end of the year.

Sprint Green phonesOf all of the mobile carriers, Sprint has been the most visible in promoting a green agenda. It’s launched innumerable green phones made from recycled materials and featuring alternative charging sources – though consumers haven’t exactly been receptive. It recycled nearly all of its nationwide iDEN network after shutting down Nextel over the summer. And it’s committed to reducing its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2017.

When it comes to alternative power sources, Sprint has definitely been innovative, exploring wind, solar and even geothermal as means of powering remote base stations. But it’s been slow to implementing these new technologies on a broad scale.

Back in 2008, Sprint announced a very ambitious plan to put fuel cells at every cell site in its new WiMAX network for backup power. When Clearwire took over the WiMAX project, the fuel cell plans were scrapped, and when Sprint launched its own complete network overhaul in 2010, no major fuel cell push was in the blueprints.

Feature photo courtesy of FlySi via Compfight cc