Ballard Newsletter - October 2015

Welcome to this issue of Ballard's newsletter, where you'll find the latest on how we are meeting the power needs of customers through the delivery of high value, clean energy products. In this issue we are focusing on backup power systems for telecom tower applications, with topics including:

  • Power challenges for telecoms in Africa
  • Delivery of Ballard's 3,000 ElectraGen™ system
  • Power system considerations for shared tower sites
  • Lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells - the perfect power couple?
  • Upcoming industry events

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Power Challenges for Telecoms in Africa

The people and businesses of South Africa are learning to live in the dark. Their beleaguered power utility, Eskom, is unable to meet electricity demand and, last November, reintroduced a tortuous schedule of rolling blackouts known as "load shedding". South Africans now check electricity reports that read like weather forecasts. Reliable power supply has always been an issue in South Africa and the situation will not be improving for a few years due to aging power stations and lack of maintenance to the power infrastructure. For businesses like mobile telecom operators, reliable power supply at their sites is critical to ensure quality of service to their customers and also to protect their revenues.

ElectraGen™-ME system with optional external fuel tank. According to Lee Andrew Jones, Senior Manager of Infrastructure and Energy at Vodafone Group, diesel generators are the traditional solution to this problem, but there are many disadvantages, including high carbon emissions, noise, maintenance needs and theft. Fuel cells on the other hand, are largely free from harmful emissions because they use alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen, methanol and even water. Water based fuel cells, for example, work on the principle of splitting water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, wherein the hydrogen is used as fuel source. Fuel cells are also less attractive to thieves and are quiet, making them more suitable for use in some urban areas, where noise is a concern.

Vodafone now has over 122 million customers in emerging markets that use mobile data on their smartphones. Data traffic over its networks in those countries nearly doubled over the past year. They are expanding their networks to keep customers connected, but are focused on minimizing any increase in energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Vodacom (part of Vodafone Group) started to deploy Ballard fuel cell systems back in 2011. They now have more than 250 sites where ElectraGen™-ME methanol systems are in operation across South Africa. Most of the units are used as backup to the electrical grid but a few systems have also been installed as prime power generators operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

The key elements of the fuel cell value proposition for Vodacom are:

  • Increased site availability to protect revenue and increase customer satisfaction
  • Reduced operating cost through lower maintenance and diesel fuel theft
  • Improved community relations  through quiet and low-emission operation
  • Reduced carbon emissions

The successful commercial deployment of fuel cell systems depends on the development of an ecosystem which should include product installation and commissioning, warranty support, service and maintenance and refueling. Ballard, with its local partners, has developed a robust ecosystem in South Africa to support the commercial deployment of ElectraGen™-ME systems nationwide.

Read more about Vodacom's experience with Ballard's ElectraGen™-ME systems.

Delivery of the 3,000th ElectraGenTM System

Ballard recently celebrated delivery of the 3,000th ElectraGen™ fuel cell backup power system as part of the 100 unit order by Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL). The ElectraGen™ systems are being deployed at base station sites on the RJIL network in India. The order followed the successful completion of an extensive 12-month trial by RJIL of fuel cell systems from various vendors, with Ballard's ElectraGen™-ME methanol-fueled system ultimately having been selected for use in backup power applications. ElectraGen™ systems have provided over 50 million operating hours and over 1 million hours of backup to critical telecom sites. In addition, systems have demonstrated over 99.9% site availability and life time beyond 15,000 hours with thousands of start/stop cycles in commercial operation.

Watch this slideshow to follow the complete story of the unit being built, shipped, delivered and installed.

Power System Considerations for Shared Tower Sites

In developed markets, such as North America, telecom network operators increasingly share tower sites. In developing markets this trend is just beginning but tower sharing is expected to grow, according to a report recently published by Navigant Research, entitled Distributed Generation and Energy Storage in Telecom Networks.

While regulators tend to favour infrastructure sharing, it is commercial considerations rather than regulatory pressures which are pushing network operators toward the trend of sharing cell sites through co-location. Operating costs associated with the running and maintenance of tower infrastructure, like diesel generators, air-conditioning equipment, and site leases can be significant. In mature markets and dense urban areas there may be limited viable locations and sites that are available are priced at a premium. In developing markets, a new entrant faces significant site build costs and a delay to the network rollout. Co-location at existing sites can avoid all of these issues, while sharing costs across a wider number of users.

This trend towards shared tower infrastructure has a direct impact on the backup power market requirements for cell sites. With fewer towers, the overall number of power systems required will decrease, with an uptick in demand for larger power outputs. As highlighted by GMSA in the Mobile Infrastructure Sharing report, rooftop sites will be the dominant location in urban areas and city centres. Space and weight constraints will become more pronounced as the load- bearing capacity of the building and foundation becomes significant. In these situations, the importance of scalable, lightweight and long duration backup power systems is indisputable.

Telecom network operators are increasingly choosing fuel cell systems to provide backup power at rooftop sites. Rooftop applications of fuel cell systems are straightforward, depending upon the logistics of the building and access to the rooftop. The fuel cell system fits through standard size doors and service elevators, but alternatively cranes or hoists could be used to lift the system onto the roof. Ballard's methanol-fueled ElectraGen™-ME system provides a quiet, lightweight, and reliable solution, with a small footprint of less than 1.5m2, including a 225 liter fuel tank.
Read a case study detailing how an Indonesia telecom operator deployed fuel cell systems on rooftops.

Li-ion Batteries and Fuel Cells:  The Perfect Power Couple?

When using traditional VRLA batteries for backup power, telecom operators face a variety of challenges including temperature degradation, cycling, weight and theft. Over the past several years, we have seen the adoption of new battery technologies by the telecom industry in response to these issues which affect site availability, increase operating expenses and impact corporate sustainability initiatives.
Lithium-ion battery solutions offer a technologically mature and attractive alternative with a unique combination of float charging capability and high cycling performance. Its key features are numerous and include high energy backup power in a compact weight-saving package, high efficiency, long calendar and cycle life (even when operating in extreme temperatures),  zero maintenance requirements and an environmentally friendly design.
Batteries are an attractive solution for short and predictable power outages of four to six hours in duration but not for unexpected or longer power supply incidents where a generator is needed to complement batteries. This is where the combination of new generation lithium-ion batteries and fuel cell DC generators becomes very powerful. Batteries are best at providing a high amount of current over a very short period of time. Fuel cell generators complement this by providing a very stable current over a long period of time.
One of the barriers today to the wider adoption of lithium-ion batteries is the relatively high price compared to traditional VRLA batteries.  Typically, however, only a relatively small bridging battery of 100 to 150 amp-hours is required to carry the load while the fuel cell generator is starting. This need for only a small battery creates the possibility to implement lithium-ion technology which, although at a higher capital cost, are much more temperature tolerant, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for a costly cooling system.  These batteries also exhibit significantly improved cycle life of 2,000 cycles at 100% depth of discharge.  And, because they don't "look" like a battery, lithium-ion batteries are less likely to be stolen.
The combination of lithium-ion batteries and a fuel cell generator provide the following advantages over traditional VRLA batteries and diesel generator solutions:

  • Seamless and extended runtime backup power solution
  • High reliability (startup success rate >99.9%)
  • Solid performance in high temperatures and when cycling
  • DC-only backup power solution (common DC bus, no auto-transfer-switches, does not rely on rectifier in backup mode)
  • Low maintenance requirements
  • Low operating cost (due to less frequent battery replacement, no cooling requirement, no theft)

Several of Ballard's customers in Japan and India have already chosen this powerful combination to provide reliable backup to their critical sites. Ballard ElectraGen™ systems have successfully been integrated with a number of lithium-ion battery manufacturers' products.
The combination of the "sprinter" qualities of the lithium-ion batteries and "marathon" qualities of the fuel cell generator makes of this couple the winning solution for telecom backup power applications.

Download this application note to learn more about telecom site optimization

Upcoming Industry Events

Intelec 2015

October 18 - 22, 2015 
Osaka, Japan

Ballard will be exhibiting at the IEEE Power Electronics Society's annual technical forum, which presents the latest in communications power systems, energy storage and energy conversion. Learn more

TowerXchange Meetup Asia 2015

November 24 - 25, 2016
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Ballard will also be participating in Meetup Asia, TowerXchange's complementary retreat for the Asian telecom tower community. Learn more