Telstra reported in October 2013 that over the previous 12 months they had been assessing the latest in fuel cell technology at a number of mobile base stations and smaller exchanges sites around Australia. These fuel cells are part of an ongoing trial to find alternative energy solutions to power the Telstra network.  Principally most fuel cells systems have been used to supply back-up power in some of the rural or remote locations which are prone to mains power outages. 

John Romano,  Telstra Director of Assets and Facilities Management reported some strong benefits of using fuel cells as a power solution for the network. He illustrated this with a recent incident at one of the mobile base stations in Queenstown, Tasmania.

"A lightning strike to the mobile base station’s AC rectifier meant the AC power couldn’t be converted to DC power to run our equipment – rather like damaging the power adapter to your laptop. So the back-up power supply had automatically kicked in to keep the base station running.  Normally, a base station in a residential location would use batteries rather than a diesel generator to supply back-up power. This is because a generator would be far too noisy for the people who live nearby. On average batteries will keep a base station running for about eight hours. Fortunately, a fuel cell had been installed in this particular site as part of our alternative energy trial. This meant that we were able to keep the base station running for over two days – more than six times longer than a battery-based back- up system.

This was particularly advantageous to us as the AC rectifier couldn’t be fixed straight away and parts had to be brought in from another location. In a remote town like Queenstown this can mean a trip of 2-3 hours one way just to get to the depot.
As a result of these trials, fuel cells have now been included as a standard solution as backup power in our mobile base stations and smaller exchanges (where the power consumption is less than 5 kilowatts per hour). A small exchange would be like the one at McMahon’s Creek, Victoria which services the locality of approximately 280 people.

We see fuel cell technology as offering a number of advantages over the more traditional battery and diesel generators solutions. These include increased reliability across a wider range of operating conditions (both in extreme heat and cold), reduced maintenance costs, longer operating life as well as reduced size, weight, installation footprint (the amount of space they physically occupy), noise and environmental impact.

We will continue to explore alternative energy technologies not just as a temporary power solution but also for their potential to be the primary power source."

The fuel cell trials by Telstra build on a feasibility study carried out by LC Energy commissioned by the NSW Department of Planning into the potential use of fuel cells as a replacement for the state grid to provide power to run the Telstra data centres throughout NSW. As the study progressed, LC Energy was requested by Telstra to also include the possible use of fuel cells to replace diesel generators and batteries as a form of back-up power for remote stations and other locations. The study reviewed the various types of fuel cells, the major providers, access to the products in Australia, available local support, requirements of different systems and the viability of the fuel cells as replacement for the current energy systems. 

SEFCA have been instrumental in installing PEM fuel cell solutions for Telstra, and have agreements in place to supply Relion and Idadtech products.  More information can be obtained at the SEFCA website