GenCell’s secret for hydrogen world domination

GenCell fuel cell technology is being used for San Diego Gas & Electric substation backup power in California. Pic: GenCell Israel.

GenCell fuel cell technology is being used for San Diego Gas & Electric substation backup power in California. Pic: GenCell Israel.

By Jason Deign

GenCell, an Israeli fuel-cell maker, yesterday trumpeted a major win as part of an under-the-radar strategy to get utilities relying more on hydrogen.

The company said San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), the Californian utility, would be installing GenCell G5rx fuel cells for substation backup power.

Bloomberg reported the deal would cover an initial three substations, with 27 more to follow within three years. SDG&E is keen to use fuel cells as a way of extending the backup power capacity at substations.

Backup power is a technical requirement at all utility substations. It is used to keep high-voltage circuit breakers open whenever there is a loss of power on the grid.

Most substations are equipped with lead-acid battery arrays that can supply backup power for up to eight hours. Beyond this, the utility usually has to switch to an alternative power source, such as a diesel genset. 

Maintaining all substation operations

A G5rx fuel cell, however, “can operate 10 times longer than existing back-up power sources, and has the capacity to maintain all substation operations versus only critical operations,” said GenCell in a press release.

“The GenCell G5rx also comes with an optional proprietary Network Operations Center system, which allows all performance monitoring and analysis to be done remotely.

“Producing 5kW of steady power, the fully certified GenCell G5rx hydrogen-based fuel cell is a cost effective, reliable and more efficient energy solution than existing back-up power solutions, such as extending the battery room.”

Bloomberg said the G5rx units “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 newswire also noted that each 3-metre fuel cell had a list price of around USD$100,000, although it is not known what SDG&E had agreed to pay for the products. 

Unconcerned about capital costs

In any case, utilities are generally unconcerned with the capital costs because of the immense losses they could suffer in a blackout, GenCell chairman Gil Shavit told Energy Storage Report during European Utility Week last year.

“Capital expenditure is not a barrier,” he said. “Our products are not as cheap as diesel gensets but our only operational cost is hydrogen.”

For many utilities, being able to extend the time available to work on a faulty substation was an important benefit. Fear of existing battery backup power running out could lead engineering teams to rush repairs, Shavit said.

“If they are under pressure, they will make mistakes.”

GenCell, which over its five-plus years of operation has perfected a technology that first rose to prominence in the Apollo moon missions, is not just targeting the utility market. 

Uninterruptible power supplies

It has also installed a fuel cell as an uninterruptible power supply for a computing firm in Rome, where legislation forbids the use of noisy gensets.

Another customer is the Mexico City metro system, and telecommunications providers such as TIM and Claro in Brazil are using GenCell’s fuel cells to provide backup power for telecom towers and thus improve network availability.

However, tie-ups such as the one with SDG&E are strategically important to GenCell because they help mainstream utilities get used to the idea of integrating hydrogen into the electricity system.

The endgame for GenCell, Shavit hinted, is for utilities to not just see fuel cells as a replacement for backup power battery systems but also as a potential source of distributed generation that could deliver power to end users.

Clearly, for that to happen the unit costs of the fuel cells would have to come down substantially. However, said Shavit: “If we go from single units to hundreds of units the price could be cut by 30 to 40%.” 

Interest from industry observers

GenCell’s strategy has attracted interest from industry observers.

David Hart, director and fuel cell and hydrogen expert at consulting firm E4tech, said: “I’m not aware of others targeting this market as one of their main offerings. It’s an interesting move.

“Some companies have built bespoke or integrated systems on request. Backup or uninterruptible power are of great interest more widely.”

And Patricia Mayer, business developer for liquid hydrogen vendor HySiLabs, said that although fuel cells had been slow to achieve commercialisation, “significant advancement has been made in recent years.” 

Wide variety of applications

Hydrogen can be used for a wide variety of applications, she said. “There are already several projects that have installed hydrogen systems for off-grid power, for example in telecom towers and data centres.

“Apart from this, hydrogen is becoming popular in some niche applications, such as forklifts for material handling in warehouses, as it releases no harmful emissions which are dangerous in confined spaces.

“Hydrogen is also much faster to refuel than batteries are to recharge, and so saves time and therefore money.”

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