Space age solutions to third world problems

Gencell’s new A5 360 solution promises reliable, emission-free power at half the cost of diesel

Read this article to learn:

  • How GenCell developed this new technology
  • How it’s being marketed to telecoms infrastructure owners
  • The fuel supply chain and maintenance cycle
  • The complete 360 solution and how this has evolved

Gencell has been working for the last seven years to update technologies used in the American and Russian space programs to make them affordable for terrestrial uses. The result, their A5 technology claims to be ready to revolutionise off-grid and poor-grid locations by using existing ammonia supply chains to fuel low cost power for telecoms infrastructure. GenCell reported their first commercial success for the product in July 2018, with Adrian Kenya committing to install the A5 at 800 towers across Kenya. TowerXchange spoke with Rami Reshef, CEO and founder of GenCell, to find out more. 

TowerXchange: Tell us about GenCell, your history and footprint.

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

We founded GenCell in 2011. Our HQ is in Israel, with subsidiaries in Europe, the US , Central America and a presence coming in the Far East. We have just over 80 employees, most of them (around 50) working in R&D: among them more than 20 PhDs in different fields in physics, chemistry, maths etcetera. 

Most of our research team are veterans from space and submarine projects, and have brought with them know how and IP from these areas. The company is commercial already and we have had two products in the market for three years, having started in utilities, homeland security, healthcare and automated industries.

We launched what we believe will become our flagship product last week, targeting rural electrification.

TowerXchange: Can you introduce A5 and how you came to develop this product?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

We founded GenCell around an amazing technology: fuel cells. Fuel cell technology has been used to power both American and Russian space programs. It’s tremendously reliable and since it is exhaust-free, it could be used inside spacecraft. But, like bulletproof space technology, it was a bit on the expensive side.

 We decided to bring this technology from space to earth, but we realized that we needed to overcome two barriers: capex – the cost of fuel cell itself, which hadn’t been an issue previously because it was designed and built for space; and opex, mainly because of cost of the fuel, hydrogen, which it is still expensive and not readily available.

We overcame the first challenge – that of high capex – by developing a non-platinum catalyst and reducing the quantity of noble metals inside the fuel cell. In doing that we have become the only platinum-independent fuel cell producer in the world. All of our products are platinum free.

The second challenge is a bit bigger. Hydrogen isn’t available on every street corner like gasoline or diesel. The infrastructure would have cost billions of dollars and taken many years to build. We wanted to use our technology to help the 1.1bn people in the world who lack electricity for communication, lighting and education.

We had to find a way around it.

We can’t power remote locations by hydrogen gas as the cost of the supply chain would be higher than that of the gas, so we knew we needed a liquid fuel. We then came across ammonia, which is the second most produced inorganic chemical in the world. It’s already being used all around us. It’s used for agriculture, it’s used for refrigeration, and for making semiconductors in most of your electronic gadgets, in your hair colour and to purify the water that you’re drinking. And because of that all of the regulations are already in place for its safe usage, as well as global supply chains.

For the last six years we have invested our time and energy into developing the GenCell A5 off-grid power solution. It is the first fuel cell that’s not only clean, reliable, weather independent and low-maintenance, but also for the first time, much more affordable then diesel.

Using a revolutionary process that allows our A5 to extract hydrogen from ammonia and without any power from the grid, the A5 is a “nano power plant” that operates fully independently of the grid, to create power wherever you need it.

According to the GSMA, there are a further 1.2mn BTS sites needed in off grid and poor grid locations worldwide, so this is a big challenge to meet. We can now produce electricity which is completely green, weather independent and is cheaper than diesel – at the moment costing just 50 or 60 US cents per kWhwH, where diesel can go over $1. We’re not just improving reliability, but also the environmental impact and operational costs. 

TowerXchange: Tell us more about how you’re marketing this product. Is it primarily a CAPEX or OPEX commitment?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

This solution has many markets and many appropriate applications, but an immediate and key market for us is telecoms. The launch of our solution is expected to be a significant contributor to lowering opex for mobile network operators and tower companies. We know reducing opex is one of the biggest objectives for the industry today.

Using GenCell’s A5 solution with ammonia fuel we can save thousands of dollars annually per telecom base station. Just imagine how much money you could save if you had thousands of sites. To encourage MNO and Tower companies, we have developed  a concept called the Gencell 360 service programme. We offer everything to help implement our green off-grid power solution: financing, the capital equipment, service, maintenance and monitoring that lets you remotely manage all of the sites. W are working closely with all the ammonia providers in every country, so we contract with them and bring them to the discussion. It’s a package. 

TowerXchange: Do users of the A5 product need to upskill their teams to deal with this new technology?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

Actually during the last few months we have met a lot of people and discussed how this can be integrated into their operations. It doesn’t require any unique knowledge or expertise. We will have an enablement plan with the towerco and share our experience by choosing locations and showing the how to operate, maintain and manage it. We will also provide support when it’s needed, but the whole system is controlled and managed, even optimised, remotely using our cloud solution. The GenCell A5 will be connected to the NOC but we will also provide a second and third line of support from our global offices. Deployment will be quick and smooth. 

TowerXchange: Are you only targeting off-grid towers for this? What are your key markets?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

Our first market is off grid and poor grid. We are expecting to talk with all the key players in these regions, but that doesn’t just mean Africa or Asia – you can find off grid sites in devolved countries such as US and Europe and we are already in discussion with key players, although not the same scale as Asia, Africa and Central America. The cost of gaining access to the grid in Europe and US can be so expensive that this is a good option. 

TowerXchange: Tell us about ROI and how long it takes to pay off and about the longevity of the A5? Diesel generators have a shelf life of 3-5 years in some countries, how long will the A5 last for?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

In Europe, particularly Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, diesel is very expensive. That’s a huge cost for tower owners, whereas the ammonia price is very low in these areas. European tower owners can also benefit from government incentives for green solutions – often in the form of tax reductions. Many governments are pushing to reduce diesel consumption by 2020, and in addition the noise of diesel generators is an issue for local communities, whereas our solution is completely quiet. You also eliminate diesel theft, which is a big problem globally.

In markets like Africa, the price for our solution out of the gate is higher than a standard diesel generator, but it takes on average less than one year to recover and you can start presenting savings after that, because the run cost is dramatically lower than diesel. The A5 lifetime is designed to be 10 years but the equipment will need to be serviced every six months, and during this servicing we replace the heart of the system, meaning that when this is done the system is brand new and functions optimally. Comparing this to diesel, where you need two generators working alternately, maintenance every few weeks and further investment to keep it running, we’re presenting a major saving. In fact, over 10 years, the GenCell A5 solution can save tower owners tens of millions of dollars.

TowerXchange: Tell us more about the remote monitoring system, how does it work and what’s different about it?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

We have developed the GenCell IoT remote manager  to keep GenCell power solutions ready to instantly provide backup energy when you need it. Using the latest M2M and communications technology allows our customers easily monitor the performance of the units. All units can be monitored from one site, some maintenance can be done remotely, it provides 24/7 stats, and allows predictive maintenance. We have taken it to the next stage and now have the ability to connect difference sensors to monitor radio equipment, weather, doors to the sites etcetera, so you can have full visibility on what’s going on on the site. 

TowerXchange: Can you give examples of who you’re working with and how it’s working in the field?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

We are getting amazing feedback from worldwide  operators and towercos, system integrators, tower management companies. For example, the reaction in Africa is excellent because the price of diesel is above $1, but theft and remote sites are the key factors which make this a game changer. They are all concerned about opex, their income is reducing due to aggressive competition and strict regulation. By implementing GenCell’s A5  solution they can save money – we aggregate operational costs into our tool and can tell them how much money they can save.

In terms of proof of how well the product works in the field, we have sites in Israel which have run 24/7 for the last 14 months, where climatic conditions can be reflective of Africa. We feel comfortable with the reliability and that’s why we’re targeting diesel as a competitor, this is a completely different ballgame.

TowerXchange: Are you targeting existing off grid locations or aiming to facilitate towercos and MNOs going into ultra-rural locations as well?

Rami Reshef, CEO, GenCell:

We are looking at ultra-rural as well, both where there is already coverage and where there isn’t. We are offering an alternative where you’ll always find batteries and diesel generators, it’s a big market, operational costs are the hot potato in the room, so we are speaking with companies who have a presence in the area and using diesel. But we are also speaking with companies who want to expand into off-grid areas where they don’t have the ability to do so. Some are private companies, others are regulated and/or compelled by government. We are also working with other entities such as the World Bank or UN to provide ultra-rural coverage. One common goal of everyone working in rural markets is to avoid diesel as much as they can, so finally there is a viable green solution for primary power beyond the grid, that is more reliable, and offers a better total cost of ownership than diesel generators.

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