Release of the world’s first affordable fuel cell primary power alternative to diesel generators has been claimed this week by Israeli fuel cell manufacturer GenCell Energy.

The company said its new fuel cell solution is designed to provide power for off-grid and poor-grid sites and will initially be aimed at the telecom tower market, which it claims could save up to $250m across 1000 towers over ten years compared to the cost of diesel generators

In aiming to overcome the cost barrier of hydrogen infrastructure, which has long relegated fuel cells to backup power applications, GenCell says it has reduced system costs to $0.50/kWh by switching to ammonia to generate hydrogen, which required a redesign of the conventional fuel cell. 

“Ammonia is the second most produced inorganic chemical you can find all over world,” Rami Reshef, GenCell CEO, told Decentralized Energy. “We’ve developed a process that allows us to extract hydrogen from ammonia with ten times the efficiency of other solutions.

“There are different technologies that can extract hydrogen from ammonia, however they consume much more power from the grid than the potential energy you will deliver. Our process allows extraction without any connectivity to the grid.”

And unlike diesel generators, which require monthly fuelling and maintenance at each tower, the company claims that one 12-tonne tank of ammonia provides its system with enough fuel for a year of 24/7 operation.

This week’s product launch “is big news, not just for us,” said Reshef, “but for any business that needs primary power beyond the grid.”

He said the company decided to market initially to telecom tower operators because “powering them is a complex challenge” and because they constitute a market that will spend around $19bn per year on diesel fuel by 2020, as well as releasing 45 million tonnes of CO2.

“Most off-grid and poor-grid area telecom towers are powered by diesel generators,” he explained. “This is mainly because the fuel is readily available – but it pollutes, the diesel leaks into the soil, and the generators need frequent regular maintenance. And diesel is a commodity so it’s subject to theft – in some places whole gensets can be stolen.”

Renewables, he said, are “a good start” to dealing with diesel emissions, but they are “not the ultimate solution” to replace diesel gensets. For example, “if you don’t have sun you will not have the power you need, and eventually you will need to add batteries and a diesel generator to your solar system.” 

In the longer term, GenCell aims to target a range of sectors in need of off-grid power. “We’re going after rural locations, the 1.2 billion people without grid access. Rural electrification is a potential market where we believe we can make a change.”

This will be possible, Reshef said, because one 12-tonne tank of ammonia “can power a telecom base station or a small school or small medical facility, five or ten or 20 or 30 kW, for one year with one drop of fuel and no greenhouse gases.”