How hydrogen fuel cells could save South Africans from load-shedding

Load-shedding is a major problem for South African businesses, with telecommunications companies, manufacturing industries, and corporate enterprise suffering whenever Eskom decides to turn off the power.

Businesses with high power requirements such as data centres are especially vulnerable, and the diesel generators used to keep these powered under load-shedding have extremely high operating costs.

This makes them prohibitively expensive to run for an extended period of time, which means that regular load-shedding could financially cripple many businesses.

There may be a solution to this sustainable backup power problem, however, thanks to the efforts of energy companies like GenCell.

GenCell develops hydrogen power cells as a cost-effective replacement for diesel backup and off-grid power delivery, and this technology could have a big impact in South Africa.

MyBroadband spoke to GenCell CEO Rami Reshef about the company’s fuel cell technology and how it could be implemented locally.

Developing hydrogen fuel cells

“We did not invent the hydrogen fuel cell. They were first invented in 1839 by William Grove, and their first commercial use was in the US and Russian space programmes to provide power on board spacecraft,” Reshef said.

GenCell’s fuel cells require hydrogen and oxygen to create chemical reactions and generate energy, with the byproduct of this reaction being water.

“When we founded in 2011, we identified two main barriers – the capital expenditure for the cost of a platinum catalyst and the operating expenditure for the high cost of the hydrogen,” Reshef said.

“If we could overcome these two barriers, we had a fair chance to present a fuel cell technology which could become mainstream.”

The company developed a non-platinum catalyst in 2011, dramatically reducing the capital expenditure required, and it had also implemented CO2 scrubbers to use oxygen from the surrounding air.

Crucially, GenCell also developed a way to use ammonia for the hydrogen component of its reaction, dramatically reducing the cost to operate these fuel cells.

“The cost of ammonia is half or even one third as the equivalent weight of diesel,” Reshef said.

Products and applications

GenCell has leveraged its technology to create power backup solutions and off-grid products.

The company has a GenCell A5 off-grid power solution, which is aimed at providing off-grid power for rural telecommunications and other industries, as well as its G5 long-duration UPS, which can provide a potentially unlimited source of 5kW backup power.

Reshef said that using GenCell’s backup technology, South African businesses could have backup power which lasts days instead of relying on UPS devices which only provide electricity for 10 minutes.

“Backup could definitely be part of the solution to some challenges you have in South Africa,” Reshef told MyBroadband. “Our fuel cell backups have the ability to deliver long-duration power supply which kicks in less than 4ms after an outage and can stay for up to two days.”

He added that GenCell’s G5 UPS can run for days and is proving in high demand for power-sensitive industries such as hospitals, data centres, telecommunications, and various other markets.

Due to the lower cost of operations and the ability for these fuel cells to deliver reliable power regardless of weather conditions or diesel availability, they could provide an elegant solution for South African industry to cope with load-shedding.

Instead of purchasing expensive diesel and using traditional generators to keep critical infrastructure powered, they could instead use an ammonia and air-powered fuel cell which emits only water as waste and delivers a reliable and stable power supply.

“I see fuel cells as becoming part of the future grid,” Reshef said, adding that there was heavy demand for the company’s product from South African enterprise.

He added that GenCell was in negotiations with various South African businesses and hoped to bring its fuel cell power generation units to the country in the near future.

This could help to alleviate the pressure of load-shedding on businesses by reducing the cost of operations when the power invariably goes out again.

GenCell G5

Now read: Law firm plans to sue Eskom directors for load-shedding

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How hydrogen fuel cells could save South Africans from load-shedding