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Not Your Father's UPS

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading

A Connecticut startup applying fuel cell technology to telecommunications says its product will guarantee prevention of power outages at carrier facilities -- such as the one that hit SouthWestern Bell in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 22 (see Tulsa Outage Serves As Warning). And it reportedly can save millions of dollars in utility costs while doing it.

But you may need a parking lot -- and a big bank account -- to put it in.

Sure Power Corp. has glommed together several elements to create a system that it says provides electrical power suitable for carrier networks. It even offers an insurance policy to prospective customers to back up its claims. If its system goes down, the vendor will pay not only for the cost of its product, but the cost of business lost as a result.

Sounds neat, but how real is it? After all, power protection is an area that's notorious for crackpots and exaggerated claims.

"It is unique," says Nicholas Lenssen, director of distributed energy services at Esource Inc., a syndicated research service that covers retail energy developments.

Sure Power's unique approach, he says, is to integrate fuel cell technology, power conditioners, and software to create a system that's more reliable than what most carriers and data centers use today -- namely, uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) that condition incoming utility power, backed up with diesel generators that kick in if the power grid fails.

Sure Power's product is more reliable than this traditional approach to power protection, Lenssen says, because it is on all the time. It actually replaces the utility power carriers use with an on-site power source, comprised of a string of four fuel cells OEM'd from International Fuel Cells -- according to Lenssen the only viable commercial supplier of fuel cells to date.

Fuel cell technology, which combines hydrogen fuel with oxygen to produce electricity, heat and water-- is starting to capture attention, Lenssen says, but only on a limited basis worldwide. He estimates that IFC has sold just 200 units to date -- and none to carriers.

On the downside is the sheer bulk of the Sure Power solution -- which includes at least four 10-foot-by-10-foot-by-18-foot steel encased units, weighing 40,000 pounds apiece. In fact, if you haven't got parking lot space available, installing Sure Power can involve adding a new building to a campus.

Sure Power counters that current UPS-and-diesel setups also take up lots of space, and require messy fuel tanks. "What do you think carriers are doing for power protection today?" demands executive VP and co-founder Art Mannion. "Take a look at that, before you say we're big."

But Sure Power has other drawbacks too. It costs a lot: A base unit is about $800,000, according to a spokesperson at IFU. (Four base IFU units are used in the Sure Power system.)

Sure Power wouldn't disclose pricing. Mannion claims his product is priced slightly above the capital outlay of adding UPS and diesel backup to the network. He says the product saves money in the long run.

Whether that value will sell is still a question. "Sure Power has adopted a model of selling uptime, not power protection. It will be interesting to see if they succeed," Lenssen says.

-- by Mary Jander, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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