Remote control

Mobile phone company Orange is using a fuel cell for the first time to power a base station in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands.

The six-month trial, which began earlier this year, is intended to develop a cost-effective method of powering communications masts in locations that cannot easily be reached by electric cable.A company spokesman said this week that so far the test has gone well, and Orange is considering other sites in the Highlands forsimilar fuel cell-driven antenna.

The first mast has been installed at a skiing centre to provide mobile phone network coverage for the A941, the main road between Rhynie and Elgin in the Aberdeenshire and Grampian region. The site is at 1,500ft and would have required 5km of cabling to connect it to mains power at a cost of between £80,000 and £120,000. The average build price for a base station on a greenfield site is £50,000, according to David Illingworth, regional design manager for utilities engineering firm FDT, which is responsible for the project.

Orange agreed that it would not have access to the site while there is snow on the ground, so the mast must operate continuously for at least three months at a time.

The proton exchange membrane fuel cell was originally intended to supply back-up power for a conventional LPG generator. It generates 5kW at 48v DC. The mast draws 1-1.8 kW.

When the test started it was found that the cell was capable of running as the main power supply with the LPG as back-up.

Illingworth said early results were promising, but the cell has not yet proved itself more cost effective than a conventional generator. This may change, however, as there are some adjustments his team plans to make that could make a difference to the overall result.Illingworth said it is likely that he will consider different cells for future sites, as the variety of products readily available begins to grow. Last year he had difficulty finding the right cell for the job.’I searched everywhere and the only company that had something suitable that was ready to use was Plug Power in New York. All the rest had lots of prototypes, but they are expensive because you are paying for their R&D costs.’

The Plug Power system cost $15,000 (£8,000) said Illingworth, and is fuelled directly with hydrogen that is stored under pressure in cylinders on site. Later this year he expects to be able to buy a 10kW device, but hopes to be able to purchase a system that includes a reformer. This would allow the fuel cell to be fed with LPG or natural gas. ‘We have storage for 8,000 litres of LPG on the site, enough for nine months’ running,’ he said.

Ian Guthrie, operations manager for Orange in Scotland, said the hydrogen fuel cell technology will mean other remote sites can be built that have not yet been possible, due to the lack of power in surrounding areas. ‘This breakthrough means we will be able to look at getting network coverage to those areas not covered.’ he said.

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