"Fuel cell generation is the only viable path to replace diesel generators"
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"Fuel cell generation is the only viable path to replace diesel generators"

CHEM Energy's CEO Hal Koyama outlines the advantages fuel cells bring to Africa's energy crisis

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Africa has always been one of the hardest continents to operate tower infrastructure due to the challenge of sourcing a reliable source of power. Towercos have become power experts, and most sites in Africa are highly reliant on generating power on-site.

But high inflation, energy market shocks, theft and the green agenda is pushing the industry to seek out alternative options for power generation. While solar and battery hybrids are a popular alternative, increasing power loads on a site with limited space to work with means diesel generator run-times are going up.

TowerXchange speaks with CHEM Energy's CEO Hal Koyama to understand how fuel cells can play a pivotal role in supporting the transition away from diesel, without compromising on cost, uptime or emissions.

TowerXchange: What is driving the growing adoption of fuel cell generators as an alternate to diesel generators?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

There are three key drivers of fuel cell generator adoption over diesel generators. Cost is probably the top driver. Fuel cell costs have come down to the point where they are equal to or better than diesel generators, even without considering diesel theft and vandalism, two costs which fuel cells do not have. Field Proven: the technology is fully commercial. Fuel cells are in commercial operation around the world.

Ours have been supporting telecom networks for more than a decade in tough environments like Africa, India, Indonesia and elsewhere. The fuel cell technology we and others use is based on the same components and materials in the automobile, truck and bus industries. So it has a tremendous industrial base behind it. Environmental concerns: Carbon reduction.

The world has awakened to the reality that strong action must be taken to combat the existential threat of global warming. In the telco environment, fuel cell generation is the only viable path to replace diesel generators and achieve an immediate carbon reduction, and a path to near zero net carbon emissions.

TowerXchange: How technically and commercially proven are fuel cells in the telecom infrastructure space?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

There are several different kinds of fuel cell chemistries out there. The only one that has been widely commercially proven is called Low Temperature PEM. It is the same type that is being used by all of the major automotive companies, such as Toyota, Honda, BMW, etc.

It is the same technology that powers tens of thousands of forklifts for Amazon, Walmart, and others in the USA and hundreds of thousands of home-based heat and power generators in Japan. This is the technology CHEM Energy SA uses in its fuel cells and has been deployed in over 20 countries, including South Africa, for more than a decade.

TowerXchange: Your tag line this year is “You will meet or beat diesel generator costs. Guaranteed.” How are you able to achieve this?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

That’s a great question and it ties in to both of the previous ones. With more than a decade of field experience and backed by the massive technical and industrial forces of major companies in this technology, we have been able to compare our initial costs and long term operating costs with diesel generators around the world. Our company is obsessed with beating diesel generators.

Over time, we’ve lowered the first cost and the operating costs of our fuel cells. This deep operational experience, combined with our relentless drive to lower total costs to the customer are what enable us to make such a guarantee. There’s a lot of “smoke and mirrors” when it comes to diesel generator costs due to organizational, supply chain and sales “spec-man-ship,” but a guarantee is where the rubber meet the road, and I doubt you’ll find many of those, if any, for diesel generators.

TowerXchange: What makes fuel cells an environmentally sustainable alternative to diesel generators? Does this come with added cost?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

Our fuel cell generators are lower total cost than diesel generators. You get the environmental benefit for free. Our fuel cells are more efficient that diesel generators in telecom, so they emit fewer carbon emissions per energy produced. Again, that does not even account for diesel theft, which also emits carbon. Also, our fuel cell generators use methanol-water as a fuel.

Methanol can be sourced from grey to 100% green sources. Globally, the whole world is moving to methanol as a green alternative to diesel fuel. While there is an immediate reduction in carbon just by using our fuel cells, we can also blend in any proportion of green methanol to literally “dial-in” the carbon reduction that the customer desires.

TowerXchange: Are fuel cell generators able to scale to meet increasing site energy loads?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

Currently, fuel cell generators are focused on 5-10kWe site loads, but starting next year, new products will be released to address up to 20kWe site loads, which will cover the majority of cell tower actual requirements. In 2024, we’ll also be releasing a 100kWe and multi-megawatt solutions to address power needs beyond towers and telco.

TowerXchange: Can fuel cells help mitigate the risk of theft and vandalism, both on sites and in the supply chain?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

Across 5,000 sites from South Africa to India, Indonesia and Japan and over 12 years, we’ve seen only a handful of incidents of vandalism. There isn’t anything of value in the system, including the fuel, that the average person can use. So typically, they’ll pry open the door and leave it at that. It is a profoundly different situation compared to diesel generators, where we see daily diesel generator theft and vandalism.

TowerXchange: Is establishing a new, alternate fuel infrastructure in a country a challenge?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

We have established fuel infrastructure in all of the countries I’ve mentioned and many more. In all of these years, we’ve never had a fuel supply problem. Part of the reason for this is because methanol, the main ingredient is the second most widely available chemical in the world. You can find an existing supply chain just about anywhere.

TowerXchange: How can mobile fuel cells help mitigate rapid grid decline and improve network resiliency?

Hal Koyama, CEO, CHEM Energy:

We were drawn into developing mobile fuel cell solutions by our customers looking for more ways to replace diesel generators. Instead of installing a permanent generator on site, they can provide backup power to several sites on an as needed basis. Our focus is to solve the MNO or Towerco’s power problems.

This is another tool to do that. Additionally, we’ve started offering fuel cell generator rental in order to cover the range of customer needs. Wherever there is a diesel generator, you’ll find us looking for a way to replace it at lower cost and lower carbon. Guaranteed.