GM, Nextel connect for fuel cell back-up power units

LAS VEGAS – In what could lead to a huge contract for General Motors fledging fuel cell business, Nextel Communications will test a GM-designed stationary fuel cell power backup system for its cellular telephone towers in California.

If the refrigerator sized fuel cell passes the test, Nextel will begin replacing its diesel powered generators with the environmentally friendly and lower-cost fuel cell units, said Mike Miller, Nextel’s western region facilities manager.

For GM and its network of fuel cell partners, the Nextel contract has immense implications. Nextel operates about 2,500 cellular phone towers around the country. And though not all the towers would need a backup system, Miller said, the company likely would place them in states such as California and Florida where energy is often disrupted by brownouts or by adverse weather conditions.

The Nextel deal helps GM and its partners establish a manufacturing infrastructure for mass production of such things as hydrogen storage tanks, fuel cell stacks and related hardware. Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of research, development and planning, said, “The path to large scale production has many ways. We think this is an ideal first application of fuel cell technology.” Burns said stationary fuel cells, such as those that could power a house, will help get consumers used to the new technology before it is installed in automobiles.

How it works

A fuel cell creates electricity from hydrogen through a chemical reaction. Hydrogen can come from numerous sources, including water, gasoline, methanol and natural gas. The Nextel test fuel cell will be powered by water and electricity, said Pierre Rivard, president of Hydrogenics Corp. of Toronto. Hydrogenics, partly owned by GM, builds test and control systems for fuel cells.

During off-peak hours, electricity will be combined with water to produce hydrogen, which will be stored in a high-pressure tank supplied by Quantum Technologies, another GM partner. During a power outage, the fuel cell will generate electricity to keep the cellular phone tower operating for up to two hours. With larger tanks, the fuel cell could provide as much as four hours of power.

Nextel became interested in fuel cells as a possible power source after the severe power outages that plagued California last summer interrupted cell phone service and caused widespread dissatisfaction among customers.

Burns said the plan calls for GM and its partners to build, deliver and install one fuel cell power unit in California. No money will change hands for the test fuel cell, Burn said. No timetable or benchmarks have yet been set for the test. But Rivard said the test would likely last less than a year. After the test period, GM and its partners will analyze the unit’s performance, build a newer, more efficient model, test it for a short period and then, once its reliability and performance are validated, begin volume production.

No cost was available on how much each fuel cell unit will cost, but Burns said GM’s aim for the business is for it to be profitable so that it could help offset some of the tremendous costs of developing fuel cells for automobiles. GM is spending at least $100 million a year on its fuel cell research with the goal of becoming the first automaker to produce one million fuel cell vehicles. GM is the only automaker that believes a gasoline reformer – which extracts hydrogen from gasoline – is the best way to make fuel cell vehicles a realistic alternative to the internal combustion engine. Using gasoline as the source for hydrogen allows drivers to use the existing fuel infrastructure.

“The reason we are doing this is to put fuel cells in vehicles,” said Ron Zarrella, GM North American president. “You go through cycles of learning. We have real momentum on the development side. We have to get some understanding of manufacturing to get the cost down to a point where it makes sense in a vehicle. So, we think by getting in the game, we’ll learn a helluva lot faster to get the cost down and get them into vehicles.”

The test fuel cell will be called HyUPS – Hydrogen Uninterruptible Power Source. GM, Burns said, is in the process of creating a brand for its stationary power cells and is looking within the corporation for the most efficient ways to manufacture the fuel cell stacks.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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