Power outages are one of telecom companies’ worst nightmares, as they lead to loss of revenue, customers, image, and so on. In response, internet and telephone providers have expressed a keen interest in having a power backup system

But power can be obtained via different processes. Back in the XIXth century, the first electric battery involved a frog leg. Nowadays, we can produce power in so many ways: from solar beams, nuclear fission, fossil fuels combustion, to name just a few. Hence, one could believe  that there is a wide choice for telecom companies regarding which backup system they want.

In this article, we dive into the main possibilities available and we try to determine which are the best suited to backup current and future telecom operations. We will focus first on traditional power suppliers, diesel and natural gas generators (i), then we will have a look at fuel cells (ii), and eventually we will wrap everything up with batteries (iii).

1. Diesel and natural gas generators.

To begin with, it is worth reminding that generators do not actually ‘create’ electricity. Rather, they burn fossil fuels (diesel, natural gas, but also liquid petroleum or biofuels) that generate mechanical power which is converted into electrical power by an alternator. 

This setup, rather simple from an engineering point of view, partly explains why diesel generators held the top among backup solutions for so long. Indeed, wherever you had on-site fuel (say, for transportation purposes for instance) you could also conveniently produce your own electricity by tapping into the same fuel stock. Plus diesel is a relatively efficient source of energy, meaning that it does not require much of it to power a high-voltage facility. For decades, diesel generators built themselves a reputation of reliability and quality. 

However, things have changed in recent years as many defaults of diesel generators started to become unbearable. There is an issue regarding emissions, for instance. NOx and particulate matters coming out of internal combustion engines have been identified as a public health concern, since they increase the risk of developing respiratory diseases. CO2 emissions obviously also gained a lot of awareness and it appeared soon that diesel generators were not exactly environmentally-friendly.  

Smoke comes out of a diesel generator in Redwood City, CA. The air quality is affected, as NOx and particulate matters are released. Photo credits: Jeff Chiu, Chronicle.

Additionally, having a diesel generator means high risks of storage issues. It might takes several years to empty a diesel tank, which is good news for your wallet, but not for the tank itself, which will suffer from oxidation and microorganisms. Especially, if water somehow gets into your tank, the fuel system can be clogged and your backup solution as a whole will not function at all. Heavy maintenance operations are therefore needed to clean regularly the generator and those prove to be quite costly in the long run.   

To avoid these concerns, one could look toward natural gas generators. For one thing, this modern type of generator is more powerful and cost-effective. Notably, because the gas is in this case delivered by utilities and not stored in a tank, these generators can run for a longer time, which is always a plus when considering backup solutions. Emissions are also significantly reduced, although not eliminated. And since they run with gas instead of liquid fuel, storage issues are way less threatening than their diesel counterparts. 

Yet there is one significant obstacle of the deployment of these generators: one is fully dependant of a natural gas utility. This means that natural gas generators have to be installed close to natural gas infrastructure and one would have to work closely and trust natural gas suppliers. Natural gas generators, as well as diesel generators, are also noisy because of their moving components. For this reason, such generators can only be installed far from living habitats as to not disturb nearby people. 

Above all, diesel and natural gas generators are today challenged by the improvement of alternatives. Unconventional solutions, such as fuel cells, ceased to appear as an academic curiosity but start being deployed.

2. Fuel cells

Fuel cell converts chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity while releasing only water. On paper, this is a marvellous piece of engineering that produce power out of the very basics chemical elements on earth and cherry on the cake, the process can be redone a quasi-infinite number of times thanks to water electrolysis. It is little wonder that fuel cells were first used in spacecrafts, where resources are more than limited. 

But fuel cells applications also include backup power for telecommunications stations or data centres. As compared to diesel generators, they are much less noisy and release zero emissions. They have an extended runtime (almost 72 hours), require little maintenance and are pretty reliable overall. In addition to that, an increasing number of public authorities have launched tax incentives programs to boost the fuel cell market.

Drawbacks of the fuel cells solution however are not to be easily dismissed. Production of hydrogen, for instance, is problematic since in most cases it is extracted from natural gas, thus tarnishing its ecological balance sheet. Then, as per natural gas generators, hydrogen infrastructure is quite scarce and given the complexity of its transport and storage, fuel cells backup solutions have to be installed close to hydrogen distribution facilities or be paired with a  refillable stationary hydrogen storage module, which add up to the total cost.

When pipelines do not exist, hydrogen is delivered by trucks, also called tube trailers. Hydrogen is compressed prior to transport, which gives the appearance of long tubes. Photo credits: Hexagon Lincoln

Fuel cells are not exactly cheap and this is partly due to its expensive materials. One might believe that given the simplicity of the process the engineering design would be unsophisticated, but in truth fuel cells function with expensive and fragile materials, such as pure platinum (roughly $30,000/kg). 

Fuel cells are a relatively new player in the field of backup power solutions, bringing in a sound, clean and reliable technology based on hydrogen. The main reason it has not gain momentum so far lies in the lack of infrastructure. Guess what solution does not require any ?

3. Batteries

Batteries are chemical power packs that produce electrical energy wherever it is needed ; it’s basically a portable power device in which a chemical reaction moves electric charges to create electricity current. From watches to smartphones, pacemakers and electric cars, batteries are used for everything, including as backup solutions for telecom companies. 

The first advantage that comes to mind when confronting batteries and generators or fuel cells is that batteries simply do not need any fuel. Rising fuel costs, fuel delivery, fuel storage, all those concerns go out of the window when considering batteries which then turn out to be pretty cheap. Also, unlike their counterparts batteries emit literally zero emissions or noises and very often they have a smaller footprint. One could even argue that batteries offer the upside of being able to operate instantaneously, whereas other backup solutions often need… a battery, to get started. 

It should also be emphasized that batteries are convenient in the sense that they are not fussy where the power comes from nor how it is made. Electricity can be found almost everywhere to charge batteries and can come from renewable sources. Batteries and solar panels are a good example of how easily and efficiently batteries can work alongside any facility, even in remote areas. In comparison, natural gas generators or fuel cells rely on a specific extraction process, a specific infrastructure and a specific delivery system- bottom line, it is rather constraining. 

Batteries can be paired with intermittent sources of energy to satisfy peaks of demand and avoid falling back on fossils fuels. Photo credits: Petrmalinak | Shutterstock

One should also bear in mind that batteries have the benefit of being scalable, both in terms of power and runtime. If you need a large amount of power to backup your cellular site, all you need to do is add more batteries. If your application is not electricity-intensive, you can seemingly adjust your battery bank’s size. Batteries offer significant economies of scale and can virtually represent a solution to any application, regardless of size or duration. The same is not true for generators, which can hardly be scaled up nor down.

That is not to say that batteries are beyond improvements, some features definitely remain troublesome. This is the case for the average battery runtime, which hardly exceeds few hours while other backup solutions deliver power for longer periods. Alongside this, concerns regarding the degradation of batteries over time exist. It is common knowledge for every smartphone possessor that after some time batteries refuse to hold a charge like they used to when they were new. Telecom operators are therefore bound to conduct frequent maintenance operations.

Still, batteries manufacturers are catching up. American giant Tesla has led the way with a new generation of batteries using lithium-ion technology that greatly extends the lifetime of batteries. Refined designs of batteries are emerging, many of which implementing remote management in order to reduce maintenance costs. 

At the same time, telecom operators are also evolving. With 5G coming up soon, internet and telephone companies are deploying a new network of small cellular sites in urban areas- the so-called small cells. Given that small cells will have to hide in the urban landscape, it is unlikely that generators nor fuel cells will represent a valid option. Hence batteries find themselves in a good spot to fulfill that role – providing backup power to small cells. 

Concluding thoughts

When looking for a backup power solution, a telecom operator has to take into account several factors such as the location, the voltage needed, runtime, fuel cost, etc. In some specific cases, it will appear that generators or fuel cells are perfectly well-suited. A big antenna located in a place where diesel fuel is already stored for another application; a cellular site bordering an hydrogen facility. 

But in every less obvious cases, there are good chances that battery packs would certainly be preferable. They compete with other existing solutions in many aspects and their shortcomings are addressed days after days. 

Yet it would be a mistake for a telecom company to rush toward standardized battery solutions. The fast-evolving telecom environment is moving toward small and more connected cellular sites, requiring small and connected batteries providing backup power. Autonom has identified that trend and provides compact and remotely manageable batteries. Fancy a look ? Do not hesitate to reach out to our team of experts. 

Comparative Performances of Power Generators and Batteries

 GeneratorsBatteriesFuel cells
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