Who: Rami Reshef, GenCell
When: MWC19, Barcelona
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As part of the Future Networks Programme, Network Economics workstream, a series of case studies have been developed, exploring areas where Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) can potentially reduce their Operational Expenditure (OpEX) through the application of innovative energy solutions. This case study focuses on the challenges and optimisation of off-grid primary power and, in particular, how replacing diesel generators with new Ammonia-based Fuel Cells can deliver significant OpEx savings.
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As networks evolve through 4.5G to 5G with more complexity, ultra-dense networks and powering the networks of the future, the need for sustainable and economically viable solutions powering off-grid networks, will continue to grow.
In this case study, we explore how the GenCell A5 off-grid power solution overcomes the high-costs of powering rural telecoms and offers operators significant OpEx savings. We look at the technology breakthrough which has led to the world’s first affordable, weather-independent primary power alternative to diesel generators. By providing cost-effective, ultra-reliable, clean power for off-grid and poor-grid telecom base stations, the solution not only offers MNOs the opportunity to improve network reliability, but it also provides a more profitable business case for the extension of tower networks into more rural areas.
GenCell Energy was founded in 2011 by Rami Reshef (CEO); Gil Shavit (President and CBDO) and Gennadi Finkelshtain (CTO and VP R&D). The company is headquartered in Petach Tikvah, Israel, and has a worldwide distribution and support network with additional facilities in mainland Europe, North America and South America.
GenCell offers affordable, clean power that can reduce the reliance on, and in some cases replace, diesel generators as a primary and backup solution.
Using ultra-reliable fuel cell technology that powers critical systems within American and Russian spacecraft, GenCell delivers backup power for utilities, homeland security, healthcare and automated industries. Its revolutionary process to create hydrogen-on-demand from anhydrous ammonia (NH3) means that, for the first time, a fuel cell can provide primary power for off-grid and poor-grid mobile telecom networks at a lower cost than diesel. GenCell has more than 80 employees, including many veterans from space projects.
The OpEx to power off-grid or poor-grid towers is too high and for many cellular/mobile phone carriers, the cost to provide grid electricity to an off-grid tower is simply too expensive, therefore, rural areas either have no or very poor connectivity. Most off-grid and poor-grid towers are powered by diesel generators since they are readily available and have an established supply chain, however, they are far from an ideal solution. The emissions pollute the air, can lead to soil contamination, are noisy and need frequent regular maintenance and resupply. And of course, the whole generator and its diesel fuel is regularly prone to theft.
Managing diesel generators requires time-consuming and expensive monthly maintenance visits to each tower. For larger businesses with many hundreds or thousands of towers, the OpEx impact is significant. Indeed, the GSMA estimates that by 2020, the global telecom industry will have deployed approximately 390,000 telecom towers that are off-grid, with 790,000 towers in bad-grid locations. For towers that are powered by diesel generators, they will consume USD18bn USD of diesel fuel and approx. 45m tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
In a 2018 study conducted by Rethink Research, a survey of 55 mobile operators indicated that the most important drivers to invest in a new power technology are; to reduce fuel costs, to reduce operating costs, to improve reliability, and to support environmental considerations.
Figure 1: Rethink Technology research results: Top reasons to invest in a new power solution.
The challenging requirements are leading to a rise in the willingness to consider new approaches to base station power. In another Rethink survey, conducted in late 2017 involving 120 operators, a significant appetite for alternatives to diesel was seen. While over one-third of companies expect to stay with diesel as their exclusive or main source of primary power in 2019, only 13% expect to be in that position by 2024.
Powering towers is a complex challenge and while renewable solutions offer a green and inexpensive alternative, a major drawback is their inevitable weather-dependency and the impact it has on their reliability, for example, dust and dirt can reduce solar power efficiency by up to 85%.
Having originally been developed for space applications, alkaline fuel cells have historically been expensive. GenCell overcame this issue by eliminating the use of platinum and reducing the quantity of noble metals inside its fuel cell, significantly reducing the CapEx. It is currently the only fuel cell company in the world to achieve this.
In the early years, Telecoms primarily used fuel cells as backup power, but as technology has matured, operators are becoming increasingly interested in fuel cells potential as a primary source to replace diesel. Fuel cells are perceived to address many of the key requirements for investment which is why growth in adoption is increasing. The key advantages of fuel cells over other alternatives are summarised below.
Table 1. Key advantages of fuel cells over other solutions
Despite the advantages, fuels cells have not displaced diesel solutions at the rate that was widely predicted. This is because, while they may address many of the drawbacks, they also have some significant downsides.
The Rethink Research study explored the main downsides that respondents cited for hydrogen fuel cells. Overwhelmingly, the most significant barriers were related to operating and fuel costs, because of the cost of transportation and distribution of hydrogen to sites, requiring significant investment in transportation infrastructure. 91% placed operating costs in their top three with 51% choosing fuel costs. In both cases, distribution was the key issue. As shown in the below graph.
Figure 2. Most significant perceived downsides of Hydrogen fuel cells
The finding demonstrates that, until recently, there has not been a solution which perfectly meets the requirements for base station power in off-grid and poor grid environments. In the absence of an ideal solution could result in operators delaying investment in new solutions or in upgrading their current sites.
The GenCell A5 is the first fuel cell solution to overcome the high-costs of powering rural telecoms and the world’s first affordable non-weather dependent primary power alternative to diesel generators (watch the video here). The solution provides all the benefits of fuel cells, including zero emissions, ultra-reliability, unlimited run-time, simple bi-annual maintenance, and crucially, it overcomes the key barrier that has prohibited the mainstream adoption of fuel cells: the lack of infrastructure for distributing hydrogen. GenCell has solved this issue by developing a fuel cell system that extracts hydrogen from ammonia on-demand, for the first time without the need to be connected to the grid.
The A5 solution is made up for 4 key components; 1) Ammonia cracker 2), 4kW fuel cell generator, 3) Energy bridge for regulating power output and lastly 4) Heat utilisation unit for dissipating excess heat. As shown below:
Figure 3. Components of the GenCell A5
The excess heat can be utilised to warm and cool a variety of facilities. The ammonia gas inside the tank flows into the ammonia reformer where the NH3 atoms are broken into a mixture of 75% H2 and 25%N2.
This mixture flows into the A5 generator where it is converted into electricity with approximately 50% efficiency. When heat is added into the equation, more than 80% efficiency can be achieved. (This example is based on ammonia and diesel costs in Kenya).
The GenCell A5 solution has been designed taking into consideration three key operational aspects of gen-set deployment; installation, fueling, and maintenance.
The A5 has been designed to be ‘plug & play’, ensuring it is easy to transport and install. Housed in a purpose-built shelter, the A5 is both secure and compact and can be housed either internally or externally. In addition to this, it is able to withstand extreme weather conditions and temperatures. The fuel component has also been addressed in that a single 12-15 tonne.
OneP tank of ammonia provides the GenCell A5 with enough fuel for a year of 24/7 operation. Operators may also choose to deploy smaller tanks on site, e.g. a 6-7 tonne tank that requires biannual refuelling. Moreover, unlike diesel generators that require time-consuming and expensive monthly fueling and maintenance at each tower, the GenCell A5 is a relatively hands-off solution, typically only requiring maintenance every six months. Indeed, the proprietary GenCell IoT Remote Manager enables remote diagnostics and monitoring of each fuel cell system, reducing the frequency and costs of onsite engineer visits.
In a press release Managing Director, Adrian Kenyan was quoted as saying “For the last 20 years, diesel generators have been the dominant primary power source for off-grid or poor-grid base stations, but today they are no longer a good fit for modern businesses that seek to minimise OpEx costs or for the environmentally conscious world in which we live”.
Benard Njoroge went on to say “GenCell’s ability to create hydrogen from low-cost ammonia to power its fuel cells is a true technological breakthrough with profound impact for the telecom industry. We can now enjoy all the benefits of fuel cells – ultra-reliability, low maintenance, no noise, and zero emissions—with a compelling business case that is too good to ignore. Installing the GenCell A5 Off-Grid Power Solution is good for our business and the environment”.
Not only will the A5 save tower management companies money, but it will also drive significant business for MNOs, providing them with much more reliable networks and a profitable business case to extend their tower network into more rural areas. In addition to this, by increasing consumer communication, MNOs have the opportunity to significantly improve the economic development, education, health and quality of life of those living in rural areas.
In remote areas with extreme weather, such as high humidity in Brazil or extreme cold in Canada, telecom providers often struggle to provide communities with a reliable and continuous telecom network. With the ability to operate at -20°C up to +45°C, the GenCell A5 can bridge that gap and revolutionise telecom tower reliability, offering uninterrupted service in extreme temperatures. Moreover, the optional addition of a specially-designed, IEEE 693 seismic compliant shelter, also ensures that the solution is resistant to high-voltage interference and earthquakes.
In some cases, the GenCell A5 is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-have’ solution, where for instance, being able to make a call to the emergency services can save lives. In other situations, reliable access to the internet makes online banking and other services possible, significantly improving lives, businesses and economic prosperity.
With talk of 5G connectivity being the key to unlocking high-speed broadband internet in the future, the importance of solving off-grid power issues will become paramount to all and will in particular support MNOs in meeting the network coverage requirements of local governments.
In conclusion, the GenCell A5 solution overcomes the OpEx barrier of rural telecom power by providing cost-effective, ultra-reliable, clean power for off-grid and poor-grid telecom base stations. By eradicating the previous price barrier that has prohibited the mainstream adoption of fuel cells, the solution enables MNOs and Towercos to enjoy all the benefits of fuel cell power at a lower cost than polluting diesel generators. In poor and off-grid areas, the solution can deliver an average OpEx saving of 33% versus diesel generators. This represents a significant step forward for poor or off-grid power generation and has the potential to significantly impact the operator business model for off-grid communications while contributing to government programs for universal connectivity and Internet services.
 Figures based on the official price of diesel in Kenya (1 USD per litre) plus the additional costs reported by cellular companies when taking logistics into account (1.43 USD per litre). In comparison, the Ammonia price per tonne, including logistics costs is 350 USD.
 Haber Bosche Process http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/~paulmay/haber/haber.htm
 Based on the current price of diesel and ammonia in Kenya with the GenCell A5 providing 24×7 off-grid power at 800 towers.
 GenCell Press Release https://www.gencellenergy.com/news/adrian-kenya-800-telecom-base-stations/ July 2018
 Based on the current global average price of diesel and ammonia, with the GenCell A5 providing 24×7 off-grid power at 1,000 towers. GenCell can provide bespoke modelling based on operators specific requirements.