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Hydrogen Fuel Cells Improve Energy Efficiency and Reliability of Hospital Microgrids

Shantanu Chakraborty
May 06, 2022

GHI Blog

Hospitals are reported to consume approximately 2.5 times more energy per square foot compared with average commercial buildings, making hospitals one of the largest energy users. As hospitals are made up of critical infrastructure, they also have to consider enhanced security of electricity supply. Although the power grid in the US is reported to be 99.7% reliable, failures can occur due to extreme weather and mechanical failure that can cause costly disruptions. These disruptions entail potential threats to patients’ lives if power supply is disrupted for life support equipment, operating rooms, and medicine refrigeration. 

Why Fuel Cells?

To ensure reliable power, hospitals have previously made use of onsite diesel generators. In recent years, natural gas solutions have emerged as a viable alternative. Although natural gas generators are reliable, they also emit pollutants that can be particularly dangerous for the at-risk population of a hospital. Fuel cells have the potential to address these concerns and are thus emerging as the preferred choice for increasing hospital resiliency.

Numerous factors drive the adoption of fuel cells. Fuel cells can operate as combined heat and power units and when integrated with one or more hospital buildings can provide a constant source of power and thermal regulation at high efficiencies. This approach enables hospitals to function as islanded microgrids and isolate themselves from outages or disturbances in the electric grid. 

Which Companies Are Investing?

Fuel cell technology providers such as Doosan and Bloom Energy have already deployed technology for increasing energy resiliency in hospitals in addition to reducing their carbon footprint. At the St. Francis Hospital in Connecticut, Doosan has deployed PureCell 400 kW fuel cells for enabling continuous power generation with grid-independent critical power capability. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bloom Energy rapidly deployed its fuel cells for supporting patients at temporary hospitals in California. In Vallejo, California, in addition to powering the main hospital, the fuel cells were used for establishing a portable microgrid built in a car park to accommodate patient overflow. 

Fuel cell hospital microgrids are not limited to the US, with GenCell Energy announcing in early 2021 that it had received approval from the Electric Authority of Israel for integrating fuel cells in hospitals for providing backup power to critical intensive care units. The South African government in 2020 unveiled seven hydrogen fuel cell systems that were to be used as the primary power source for field hospitals in Pretoria

What Are the Limitations of Fuel Cell Microgrids?

Although there are benefits to fuel cell-based microgrids for hospitals, significant efficiency improvements are required for fuel cells to compete with fossil fuel-based generators. Space availability is another constraint, as hydrogen supplied to fuel cells would need be compressed and stored. This requirement raises safety concerns due to high pressurization and flammability of hydrogen, which could result in explosions. 

Future of Hydrogen Microgrids for Hospitals 

As sustainability concerns continue to grow, fuel cells provide dual benefits of increased reliability and reduced emissions. Thus, fuel cells have the potential to become the preferred technological choice for energy resiliency in hospitals through an integrated energy system made up of solar panels, battery storage, and fuel cells.