Thursday, May 26, 2016
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Lessons from the Hurricane

Hurricane Sandy made fools out of some hospital administrators in New York City, where absolutely vital emergency generators came up short, forcing massive evacuation of patients from four hospitals to hospitals that had generators that worked. Today's hospitals cannot operate without electricity; too much of our medical technology depends on electronics and the power to run them. To be sure, many of the systems in a patient's room have battery power, but the charge will usually last for only a few hours before power is needed to run and recharge these devices. Power is also needed for lighting and heating (or air conditioning), to run the elevators, advanced diagnostics, and the operating rooms. These are not luxuries; they are mandatory.

There is no excuse for balky and non-operating Diesel emergency generators — certainly not in a hospital situation. To further compound this travesty, there are perfectly good commercial fuel cell generating systems that could be installed instead of the Diesel generators — power sources that would run continuously, emergency or not, providing steady, reliable and inexpensive electric power, which would in fact, reduce the hospital?s cost for energy.

400 Kilowatt Fuel Cell
St. Helena Hospital in Napa Valley, Calif., has been drawing power from its state-of-the art 400 kilowatt fuel cell system from UTC Power, a United Technologies Corp. company (NYSE:UTX) for nearly two years. The PureCell® Model 400 System meets 63 percent of the hospital's electricity needs and its byproduct thermal energy is being used for hot water and space heating for three of the hospital's buildings. The fuel cell system is a combined heat and cooling system that has helped the hospital reduce its energy costs, increase its operational reliability and contribute to a cleaner environment.

Fuel cells which produce electricity, heat and water through an electrochemical process are one of the cleanest, quietest, most energy-efficient power-generating technologies available today. They also meet the strictest U.S. emission standards.

With its proven phosphoric acid-based fuel cell technology, the PureCell Model 400 System has an industry best 10-year stack life and a 20-year product life, with an overall system efficiency of up to 90 percent — nearly three times that of typical central generation plants. In addition, the Model 400 is designed to operate in water-balance — no consumption or discharge of water in normal operations — saving millions of gallons of water when compared to central generation and other fuel cell technologies. These lifetime figures are based on continuous operation 24/7, 365 days per year {?} not just during emergencies. A fuel cell is not meant to stand idly by, so it is running and supplying power, and will not balk during an emergency the way that Diesel generators do so frequently.

The St. Helena facilities team has programmed the energy management system computers to rely on the fuel cell as the primary source of heat and power, while keeping boilers and generators online for some low-level energy needs (the 37 percent of total energy requirements not supplied by the fuel cell) and emergency backup. The fuel cell system is described as "a good fit" because the hospital needs reliable power and thermal energy around the clock.

By generating most of its power on site with a fuel cell, St. Helena Hospital is able to reduce the burden on the local power grid and its impact on the environment. The fuel cell power plant is preventing the release of more than 530 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year — the equivalent of planting more than 125 acres of trees. The reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions compared to a conventional power plant are equal to the environmental benefit of removing 115 cars from the road, and more than 500,000 gallons of water will be saved.

Purchase of the hospital's fuel cell was partially funded by a grant from the California Self Generation Incentive Program (SGIP). The California SGIP provides financial incentives for the installation of new, clean, and energy-efficient on-site distributed generation. The fuel cell was also funded by an anonymous donor who made a generous contribution to this project through the Napa Valley Community Foundation. The power costs for the hospital are expected to drop as much as $180,000 annually, helping to pay down the equipment investment in as little as three years. The fuel cell power plant runs on methane, piped in from the local natural gas distribution line. Natural gas is a very clean fuel that the U.S. has available in enormous quantities.

Hurricane Proof Fuel Cells
Now that Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, it's possible to evaluate the performance of existing fuel cell power systems operating in the Bahamas. Canadian company Ballard Power says that the superstorm was unable to beat the power of its fuel cell products. Before the storm tore its way up the U.S. East Coast, it hit the Bahamas, where mobile telephone networks are powered by the Ballard Power ElectraGen fuel cell systems. Though the country saw extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy, the storm was unable cut off the power being provided by the hydrogen fuel cells, a major victory according to Ballard Power. The ElectraGen-ME systems incorporate a fuel reformer to extract hydrogen from HydroPlus, a mixture of methanol and water available from accredited suppliers around the world. The hydrogen is then used as feedstock for the fuel cells. Methanol is a readily available fuel, making the fuel cell a practical solution for backup power needs even in remote locations.

Gaining Momentum
Ballard's fuel cells have become a popular energy solution in the telecommunications industry, especially in countries developing an extensive mobile network. Cell towers can sprout wherever they are needed, regardless of the availability of infrastructure utilities (electric power or natural gas lines).

As the number of mobile devices like smart phones and tablets escalates, there is an increasing need to modernize existing telecommunications infrastructure, and in many places build totally new infrastructure. As companies begin modernizing this infrastructure, they require power systems that will ensure that consumers still have access to mobile services. Fuel cells have proven to be the most popular option in this regard because of their ability to produce large amounts of uninterrupted electric power.

Ballard Power notes that its fuel cells operated exactly as expected during the three days that the Bahamas were battered by Hurricane Sandy. The energy systems were able to keep the country's telecommunications network powered and operational throughout the storm, ensuring that communications could continue as needed. This was considered a major boon for the recovery effort during and after the storm because communications were working just the way they should.

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