Until recently we have been content using fossil fuels to power our businesses and run our IT systems. Oil has been relatively cheap and was available in abundance. However times have changed; as our reserves empty and prices become volatile we have looked towards a cleaner alternative and the case for sustainable energy has grown.
Fuel cells offer us an optimistic future; as manufacturers launch new product developments into the market, popularity for this clean technology has increased. Their versatile nature and remarkable scalability makes them suitable for a range of applications. In IT, we can use fuel cells to provide portable power for a laptop, backup power for computer rooms and even prime power for entire data centres.
Fuel cells are undisputedly cleaner technology when compared to traditional fossil fuel generators and batteries. By using clean fuels such as hydrogen or methanol, fuel cells eliminate any dependence on oil and produce no harmful emissions when operational - only heat and water.
Although widespread adoption of this technology is still to come, the early adopters of fuel cells are not always doing so because of the technology's environmental credentials, often it's because there are other benefits just too compelling to ignore.
Some examples follow.
Winton Capital Management
Winton Capital Management wanted its IT systems to be secure and protected against any power failure. Being situated in West London means their office space is limited. As the company is surrounded by several residential neighbours, using a traditional generator to provide standby power would have been unacceptable because of its size, noise and emissions.
The company installed three 10kW APC hydrogen fuel cells, mounted in the same rack, to provide 30kW of standby power linked to a three-phase UPS that can provide them with unlimited runtime. The whole unit is located in its computer room.
Fuel cells provide the perfect solution to its restricted space and need for unlimited standby power runtime. It's a bonus that the solution is clean, and Winton describes its fuel cell installation as simply 'cool technology'.
Fuel cells are excellent solutions where systems need remote power, the following example with npower renewables demonstrates.
npower renewables use fuel cells to power telemetry equipment. Having already established 14 onshore wind farms across the UK, it wanted to expand its commitment to sustainable energy and test several new sites to determine suitable locations for building further wind farms.
A portable anemometry mast - powered by solar panels and two methanol fuel cells - tests wind speeds at heights of up to two hundred metres. It used methanol fuel cells because of their flexibility in offering a portable solution which can generate long-lasting prime power in remote locations.
Whilst fuel cells are the champions of clean technology, how 'green' they are depends on how we produce the fuel (typically hydrogen). Industrial companies produce hydrogen in volume as a by-product of chemical processes, or by reforming natural or anaerobic digester gas.
However, a 'green' alternative for on-site production, which is attracting considerable interest and research, is to use renewable energy sources - such as wind or solar power - to produce hydrogen by electrolysis. This eliminates all carbon emissions, making the technology more eco-friendly and sustainable.
Environmental Energy Technology Centre (EETC)
Yorkshire Forward recently commissioned the building of the EETC in Rotherham. The building is an iconic carbon free structure designed to encourage development and commercialisation of environmental energy technologies. Central to the EETC is its hydrogen mini grid system (HMGS) which produces hydrogen on-site from energy generated by a wind turbine.
The keystone of the HMGS is its 30kW fuel cell which uses the stored hydrogen so that during periods of low wind speed the centre can remain operational. The whole system makes the EETC self-sufficient and proves that organisations can remove themselves from the national grid and increase their power reliability whilst using renewable energy to reduce their overall carbon footprint.
The way people are thinking about new energy solutions is changing. With the launch of every new fuel cell product, interest levels are rising and more organisations are becoming familiar with the benefits that fuel cells offer.
In the last few months, fuel cell exposure in the public domain has also increased. BBC TV programme Top Gear recently demonstrated the Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell car, and James Bond's latest epic 'Quantum of Solace' had an explosive - yet somewhat unrealistic - finale highlighting this innovative technology.
Fuel cells aren't all about saving the planet; sustainable energy offers multiple benefits to those choosing to invest. Whether they are being used for prime or back up power, fuel cells ensure that an organisation is unaffected by mains power failures. By ensuring hydrogen is constantly supplied to the unit, fuel cells offer unlimited runtimes, and the lack of moving parts means that maintenance costs are far lower than traditional power generators.
Furthermore, fuel cells are small and compact, silent when running and produce few vibrations. For these reasons, they can be housed indoors - even inside the computer room. This eliminates the need for planning permission to site diesel generators, which can be a big issue in city centre locations where outside space is limited or air quality controls are in place.
Fuel cells offer an effective solution to long-term energy provision. Their eco-friendly attributes make them a sustainable power source, plus they offer a vast array of additional benefits.
Fuel cells have the potential to reduce our carbon emissions and protect the environment whilst offering real business benefits to safeguard IT infrastructures and make organisations more effective.
They offer a viable source of sustainable energy and are revolutionising the power industry. What makes fuel cells unique is their flexibility to suit such a wide range of applications. They have the potential to power our businesses and homes, our laptops, cars and mobile phones.
Many countries such as Japan, Germany and the US have already embraced fuel cell technology and developed a hydrogen economy to support their widespread adoption. We anticipate a similar pattern emerging across the UK as their popularity increases and they become more accessible to businesses.
Tom Sperrey is Managing Director of UPS Systems.