Every year, the US endures around 12 to 14 named storms. Of these, five to seven will become hurricanes, while two to four will become what is frequently referred to as a "major hurricane." But regardless of its classification, with each storm that passes there is a significant amount of damage inflicted upon infrastructure and, consequently, the nation’s economic growth.
Often resulting from hurricanes and severe weather events, power outages can add an extra level of damage and danger to an area, making it unsafe even after the storm has passed. For example, according to the Eaton Blackout Tracker, in September 2018 Tropical Storm Gordon caused outages and blackouts in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. Meanwhile in October of the same year, Hurricane Michael left almost 2.5 million electricity customers across the Southeast without power.
Unsurprisingly, the economic impact of severe weather events in conjunction with power outages is stark. A recent report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency accurately assessed the scale of the damage, estimating that around 40 to 60 percent of small businesses close permanently after a storm. What’s more, the report found that 90 percent of businesses that close for just five days following an extreme weather event eventually fail within a year. In addition to these findings, a separate report conducted by the Congressional Research Service concluded that weather-related outages cost the nation as much as $70 billion annually.
Given that the United States is enduring progressively severe natural weather events with every year that passes, businesses are beginning to rethink how they ensure reliability of power to preserve business continuity during an outage. Adopting reliable, long-duration backup power supplies enables businesses to become much more independent from the grid and mitigate the impact of a blackout. As a result, having reliable backup power is fast becoming essential during the development of emergency preparedness programs, ensuring businesses have a resilient infrastructure in place to help them better operate during and immediately following hurricanes while also minimizing the damages sustained to enable quick recovery.
To date, most businesses seeking emergency backup power to support a business’s mission-critical applications in the event of weather-related emergencies and power outages rely on diesel generators. However, not only are they noisy and polluting, they also require frequent refueling and very precise maintenance procedures which, if not followed properly, significantly reduce the generators’ reliability. As an alternative, some businesses are using an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and batteries, although these solutions offer limited duration backup and require extensive storage.
With more and more regulations against carbon emissions, the trend to move away from fossil fuel generators is well underway, and the energy economy is in transition. For decades, hydrogen fuel cells have been touted as a great source of clean energy. Not only do they offer a level of power reliability used to power Apollo and Mir space missions, they also have energy storage capabilities. What has prohibited their mainstream use to date is quite simply cost. However, in recent years, technology breakthroughs and advances in hydrogen infrastructure -- particularly in the US -- have seen the CAPEX and OPEX of fuel cells decrease quite significantly. As a result, fuel cells are gaining a lot of interest from businesses looking to capitalize on their inherent reliability benefits with the added bonus of transitioning to green power.
There are several types of fuel cells, each now available on the market to serve a range of different applications. These include proton-exchange-membrane (PEM) and solid oxide (SO) fuel cells, which each offer different power ratings for different needs. Most well-suited for backup power applications are alkaline fuel cells (AFC), which benefit from high efficiency and low operating temperatures.
The GenCell G5 alkaline fuel cell is already being deployed by a number of businesses and commercial services around the world for long-duration backup power requirements -- from factories, hospitals and hotels right through to wine and champagne producers. All share the same trait: the requirement for ultra-reliable power to kick in to backup critical power points when the grid goes down, and this is the reason why this hurricane season I’ve witnessed the highest demand yet for fuel cells from businesses seeking to increase their business resiliency.
As the drive towards clean energy continues, it is clear that US businesses have awakened to the transition. Businesses are beginning to take power into their own hands, fortifying their energy supplies with green and sustainable backup power solutions that offer increased resiliency and reliability compared to traditional backup power sources. With warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels, the impact of hurricanes is expected to increase in intensity and, consequently, these developments within the market could not have been more timely. Yet ultimately, in today’s climate, it is essential that we continue to help educate businesses about the unique benefits of this green technology and demonstrate the business case for fuel cells. There’s no doubt, after all, that ensuring business continuity during severe weather conditions remains priority number one.
Alex Saucedo is the vice president of North American sales for GenCell Energy.