FAA Rolls Out Fuel Cells for Backup Power
Wednesday, April 28, 2010 | Comments
Photo courtesy ReliOn
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is determining 26 air-to-ground sites that will receive new fuel cell backup power units. The rollout, funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) Hydrogen Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies program, was established to add backup power to many sites that don’t have any secondary power in place when power grids fail.
“Our goal is to prove to ourselves that fuel cells are a viable energy source, an alternative to engine generators and battery backups,” said David Powers, FAA program implementation manager. The sites, which have yet to be determined, will spread across the FAA’s three service centers: east, central and west. The agreement was signed in 2009.
The DOE program funding the $465,000 project was established to help customers understand how fuel cells work and to view fuel cells as a viable alternative energy source. The grant buys the fuel cells, and the FAA must install them.
The rollout almost doubles the number of fuel cell sites for the FAA, which has been a customer of ReliOn fuel cells since the technology became commercially available in 2003. Before this project, the FAA had 28 sites that used ReliOn fuel cells to provide backup power. Sites from the West Coast to the Midwest have demonstrated how the units work in a variety of weather conditions that may cause a main power outage.
The 26 recipient sites will be chosen based on whether they have any type of backup power, along with location and accessibility. “We want to provide backup power, offering more redundancy than anything else,” Powers said.
The project will provide fuel cell backup power to radio transmit receive (TRT) and air traffic control sites. The FAA plans to put the units at smaller, active sites, not the FAA’s biggest facilities, Powers said. When grid power goes out at an FAA site, the site goes down, disrupting communications between pilot and ground control. “The FAA tries to make sure we have power availability 99.999 percent of the time,” Powers said. “We need to have very few outages.”
Powers has witnessed the evolution of fuel cells during the past decade. He described the first generation as fairly basic technology that wasn’t as clean or reliable as current products. “Now you have Ph.D.s across the world working on fuel cells, and the results are really amazing,” he said.
Fuel cells are known for their clean, low-maintenance benefits. Requiring only hydrogen, the units can create power with water and warm air as the only byproducts, said Sandra Saathoff, ReliOn director of marketing communications. Changing the air filter every 400 run hours and running the machine once every four to six weeks are the two maintenance requirements, and running the machine remotely can be scheduled remotely with automatic self-cycles.
Because fuel cells run on hydrogen, maintaining a large enough quantity to allow fuel cells to be the main power source can be unwieldy, Saathoff said. But the popularity as a backup power source is increasing as users discover the touted environmental and cost benefits.
The FAA hopes to move toward next-generation air traffic control communications soon, and identifying an alternative energy source to migrate with the systems is appealing. Fuel cells have a reputation of being reliable and needing little maintenance, two factors that contribute to the FAA’s long-term goals. “We really see fuel cells as one of our primary energy sources in the future,” Powers said. “We’re hoping to remove some battery systems because they typically require lots of maintenance for engine generators.”

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