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The biggest fuel cell order you never heard about

Last March, in a move that went basically unreported, MetroPCS made one of the largest fuel cell orders in history, purchasing almost 22 megawatts (MW) worth of Altergy Systems’ Freedom Power fuel cells for backup power at California cell sites. In total, MetroPCS ordered 1,528 10kW systems and 437 15kW systems in what Altergy claims is the largest single fuel cell deployment for telecommunications in the world. Working with EnerSys, Altergy began installing the systems in July. The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

MetroPCS didn’t just jump blindly into fuel cells, however. In 2011, the company installed what was then the largest fuel cell deployment in the country, putting in 356 Altergy fuel cells for backup power at cell sites in South Florida. According to South Florida Field Operations Director Tom Browning, MetroPCS found that annual costs for its fuel cell sites—including maintenance and refueling—were about half of the cost for its generator-backup sites. The fuel cells also offered more reliability and longer run times than the generators.

Although the announcement has flown under the radar, it is huge news, and not just because of the massive size of the order. Most fuel cell investment by telecom companies has been subsidized by the federal government via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 –  AT&T and Sprint have both used stimulus dollars to install a few hundred fuel cells for backup power at cell sites around the country. This installation, though, is the result of pure cost-benefit analysis by a profit-minded company (although it is likely MetroPCS received a federal tax credit for the fuel cells). With long run times, high reliability, quiet operation, and relatively small size, fuel cells are inherently well suited to use as a universal power supply (UPS). And, with no noxious emissions, they can be placed anywhere, with no need for ventilation.

In 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, the FCC attempted to require that all cell sites be equipped with eight hours of backup power to ensure access to communications during disasters. Telecom companies, including MetroPCS, were leery of the cost of putting in eight-hour backups and fought the rule bitterly in court; the FCC eventually capitulated. Now, though, it looks like the economics behind fuel cell backups for communications networks make a lot more sense. Reliable, uninterrupted power is critical for telecom companies, and it’s clear that MetroPCS thinks that fuel cells do a better job providing it than combustion generators and batteries.

A MetroPCS South Florida site

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