TOKYO, Sept. 8 (Reuters) – As the world rushes to cut carbon emissions, hydrogen fuel cells could offer global telecommunications an environmentally friendly solution to powering energy-hungry remote networks, experts say.
Telecoms operate a vast array of relay stations, data centers and other infrastructure that require reliable and constant power. Hydrogen fuel cells, invented in the 1800s and used in US and Russian space programs, can replace noisy and polluting diesel generators that sometimes run around the clock, their supporters say.
The cells are silent, have few moving parts and emit only water. With the UN in August sounding “code red for humanity” on global warming, such sources of energy are attractive to a sector which accounts for 3% of global energy consumption.
“It’s a great concept and I think diesel generators are on the way out,” said Uwe Lambrette, partner at telecoms consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
Emissions from power grids and IT make up nearly a third of the carbon footprint of telecommunications companies, Lambrette said, based on a survey of 19 global operators.
Telecoms need generators that can turn on quickly during blackouts, and in remote places they are often the only source of power. Solar and wind, which don’t always provide stable power levels, are unsustainable, experts say.
Fuel cells remove electrons from hydrogen using a catalyst, combining the resulting gas with oxygen. This produces electricity, heat and water.
But the technology still has some hurdles to overcome. Fuel is difficult to store and little infrastructure is in place to transport it over long distances from where it is produced. The cost of hydrogen is also high: around 10 times more than diesel in some markets.
In Japan, hydrogen enjoys strong government support, including subsidies for technology and infrastructure. Hydrogen-powered buses and cars are becoming more common, and Toyota is building a prototype gas-powered city near Mount Fuji. Many companies see an opportunity.
“In Japan, fuel cells are typically used as a combined source of heat and power or for transportation,” said Mike Benner, a Tokyo-based consultant on power grids and power systems, who also worked in the industry. Japanese mobile phone industry.
Benner said that “there are many reasons why hydrogen has not been an emergency power application,” including the fact that the fuel is “notoriously difficult to store.”
GenCell (GNCL.TA), a small Israeli company that went public last year, is working with one of Japan’s major telecommunications operators to test its G5 fuel cell unit, CEO Rami Reshef told Reuters . The company’s shareholders include the Japanese TDK Corp (6762.T).
Reshef declined to identify the Japanese company. He announced in July that German company Deutsche Telekom is also testing its fuel cells and that the G5 is used commercially in 14 countries, including the United States and Japan, Reshef said.
Panasonic (6752.T) said it was working on fuel cell projects but declined to provide details.
“Our pure hydrogen fuel cell generators are still in the testing stage, not only for the telecommunications sector but also for other industries,” said a spokesperson for Panasonic.
Hitachi (6501.T) viewed hydrogen fuel cells as backup power units for data centers, but did not adopt them due to “the difficulty of securing and storing hydrogen fuel in such a way. stable “and not being able to” sufficiently confirm (their) security “. “said a spokesperson.
Other companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (7011.T) and Toshiba (6502.T) declined to comment or did not respond to multiple inquiries.
Reshef said backup power for the G5 in Japan would cost around $ 0.83 per kilowatt hour (kWh) compared to $ 1.22 / kWh for diesel generators, a calculation according to Benner “seems reasonable.”
“There is no doubt that fuel cells can work,” said Tomas Kåberger, affiliate professor at Chalmers University of Technology. “But where does the hydrogen come from? If it were transported, it would probably increase costs even compared to diesel.”
In Japan, hydrogen gas is typically produced by refineries and chemical manufacturers as a by-product or by steam or gas reforming processes and is transported in high pressure tanks.
Hydrogen has an energy density almost three times that of diesel, but costs about 1,100 yen ($ 10.00) per kilogram in Japan, while fossil fuel costs an average of 133 yen per liter, or about 1 kilogram. , for consumers.
To produce the same amount of energy for the same cost, the price of hydrogen would have to drop to about double that of diesel, according to US government data.
Most of the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels and is called brown or blue hydrogen because it is not emission free. But more and more companies are investing in electrolysers powered by renewable energies to produce “green” hydrogen. Read more
The United States aims to reduce the cost of green hydrogen to $ 1 per kilogram by 2030, while $ 150 billion in fuel production projects have been announced worldwide in 2020, up from none five years more early. Read more
In Japan, Softbank (9434.T) estimates that more than half of its 700,000 tonnes of carbon emissions in the year to March 2020 came from its 230,000 base stations. Softbank has 1,000 diesel generators and does not test or use hydrogen fuel cells.
The other two major telecom operators in Japan, KDDI (9433.T) and NTT DoCoMo, did not respond to written requests for comment.
The three operators are building nearly 70,000 new base stations to handle ever-increasing data loads on mobile networks. More than 20,000 of them need continuous and reliable backup power, according to GenCell.
($ 1 = 109.9900 yen)
Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick. Editing by Gerry Doyle
Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.