Altergy had more than 60 fuel cells in the immediate Hurricane Sandy disaster area that acted as backup power for cell phone towers. | Photo courtesy of Altergy.

During Hurricane Sandy, fuel cells were instrumental in providing backup power for cell towers and keeping cell phone communications open for many in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Altergy, a manufacturer of fuel cell power systems, had more than 60 fuel cells in the immediate Sandy disaster area acting as backup power for cell phone towers. While many of the diesel, propane and battery cell phone tower backup generators were affected by the storm, all of the cell towers powered by fuel cells ran without any issues -- allowing many disaster victims to continue accessing their cell phone network.

UTC Power, another fuel cell manufacturer, had more than 20 fuel cells systems installed in the New England and New York area affected by Sandy. Its 400 kW systems provided continuous power to buildings such as grocery stores, with only one fuel cell shut down temporarily due to an issue related to the fuel cell’s balance of plant -- a balance of plant refers to the components beyond the fuel cell. The unit restarted after it was quickly and safely repaired.

Why are fuel cells a good energy supply during natural disasters? Fuel cells can run as long as the fuel supply (usually hydrogen or methanol) is available. Fuel cells using hydrogen tanks can run for several days before a replacement tank is needed, depending on the size or number of the tanks. While diesel generators also provide long runtimes, their internal combustion engines have more moving parts than fuel cells and require more hands-on maintenance, something that may not be possible during natural disasters. The availability of diesel fuel during natural disasters can also be an issue. Another important advantage of fuel cells is the ability for remote monitoring and control, ensuring standby readiness and quick response, which can be critical.

At the Energy Department, we are committed to developing innovative clean energy technologies, and our efforts include investing in advanced fuel cell technologies. This past week, we released a new report, Pathways to Commercial Success: Technologies and Products Supported by the Fuel Cell Technologies Program, highlighting the success of the Department’s efforts. The report finds that 360 patents issued for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, 35 commercial products and 65 emerging technologies came directly from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy funding. Preliminary analysis also indicates that these Department-supported hydrogen and fuel cell technologies created or retained nearly 300 jobs between October 2011 and September 2012.

Fuel cells can be used as backup power for a number of organizations during natural disasters including warehouse, critical communications centers, water supply systems, and healthcare and hospital facilities. With support from the Energy Department, more than 700 fuel cells for backup power have been deployed by manufacturers like Altergy to date. Targeted fuel cell demonstrations increase the scale of deployment and help improve the cost-effectiveness of the technology, leading to faster market adoption. These successful projects have led industry to plan additional purchases of more than 1,300 fuel cell-powered emergency backup installations without any funding from the Energy Department. Now, that’s true market transformation!

Sunita Satyapal
Sunita Satyapal is the Director of EERE's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office.
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