My Generation: New Power Sources for Emergency Services and Disaster Relief

Posted on March 26, 2014

Filed under News    Tagged with contingency, disaster management, fuel cells, generators, search and rescue

When the lights go out, that's not all we will miss. Energy keeps us warm, cooks our food and allows us to communicate; whether at work, with our friends, with our families or when the need arises, with the emergency services.

UNICEF's official guidelines recommend households at risk assemble a “disaster kit” including essentials such as warm clothes, food and first aid supplies. However a second glance reveals that three of the eight items are directly dependent on energy - namely emergency cooking equipment, a portable radio with spare batteries, and a flashlight - reiterating how dependent on energy we are. In today's world, many of us would rely on our mobile phone instead of the radio.

Last month, storms and flooding in the UK left tens of thousands without power as they were cut off from the national electricity grid. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, storms and flooding often cause damage to essential infrastructure including power and telecoms, leaving communities isolated - and the emergency services need to carefully plan every operation taking this disruption into account.

Hospitals or other critical parts of our infrastructure will often switch to a generator in the event of a power outage, but unless you live in a rural area there's a good chance you have never considered this type of backup power necessary. Although some hospitals in the UK are becoming self-sufficient with independent primary power, the kind of emergency backup generator used by smaller sites is only allowed to operate for 200 hours every year, and only in the event of an emergency power failure or for routine testing and maintenance. These basic diesel powered generators cost an order of magnitude less than primary power solutions, but this too comes at a price with significant air pollution, poor fuel efficiency and high maintenance costs. Most importantly, they are not designed to provide continuous power.

For the emergency services today, diesel generators are essential. Scaling from the small units described above to container-sized workhorses, they provide portable power that can be transported to the affected area providing electricity to power incident room computers and communications. From such a base of operations, generators can also be deployed to power essential medical services, pumps and lighting for the communities affected by disasters. Here, distributed hydrogen fuel cell power offers a number of advantages for future relief efforts. Firstly, fuel cells are approximately two to three times more efficient than diesel engines (so use a lot less fuel), they are also quiet, require little maintenance (because there are few moving parts), and they produce only water vapour - adding no air pollution to the affected area.

The Upp personal energy device provides long lasting portable energy

Effective communication is essential to coordinate emergency response, and this relies on responders in the field having regular communication by radios or smartphones. Today, these are battery powered, but recent developments in fuel cells such as the Upp portable energy device (pictured) offer enough stored energy in a single refill cartridge to power a smartphone for up to a week (depending on usage and charging variables). In the home, this can give peace-of-mind that power will be available when needed. In the field, this could mean more productive use of time, increased range for search and rescue operations, and improved safety for the emergency workers who risk their lives to help people in need.

We have illustrated the potential of fuel cells when natural disaster strikes, but emergency services from mountain rescue to the coastguard could also stand to benefit from these advances in technology. Whenever an emergency service worker is operating where the security of the power grid is removed, fuel cells present new and attractive possibilities.

This is only the beginning. In the future, new fuel cell technology will offer tremendous opportunities to support people in need.

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