GM fuel cell gets test as backup system

Stationary units seen as precursor to auto version

LAS VEGAS — In what could be a big boost for General Motors’ fledgling fuel cell business, Nextel Communications will test a GM-designed stationary fuel cell as the backup power 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 fuel cell units, said Mike Miller, Nextel’s western region facilities manager.

For GM, the project is a way to develop volume production methods for fuel cells that can bring down the cost and make the technology viable for autos.

The Nextel contract also is big business. Nextel operates about 2,500 cellular phone towers around the country. Although not all towers would need a backup system, Miller said, the company likely would place them in states such as California and Florida, where power often is disrupted by brownouts or adverse weather.

“The path to large-scale production has many ways. We think this is an ideal first application of fuel cell technology,” said Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of r&d and planning, when the deal was announced here Tuesday, Oct. 30. Burns said stationary fuel cells, such as those that could power a house, will help get consumers accustomed to the technology before it is placed in autos.

Clean power

A fuel cell creates electricity from hydrogen and oxygen through a chemical reaction, with only water vapor as its emission. The 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 from Quantum Technologies, of Irvine, Calif., 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.

Outages sparked interest

Nextel became interested in fuel cells as a power source after the power outages that plagued California last summer interrupted cell phone service.

Burns said the test calls for one fuel cell power unit in California. No money will change hands, Burns said, and no timetable or benchmarks have been set for the test. But Rivard said the test likely would last less than a year.

Then GM and its partners will analyze the unit’s performance, build a newer, more efficient model, test it for a short time and then begin production.

Burns gave no cost estimates, but said GM’s aim for the business is for it to be profitable so it could offset the high 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 1 million fuel cell vehicles. GM’s strategy includes using gasoline as the source for hydrogen to allow drivers to use the existing fuel infrastructure.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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