Mountaintop fuel cells save Forest Service money and time

Mar 17, 2021

Solar panels buried under snow on top of Mount Madson. Before installing fuel cells, the Forest Service would spend thousands digging out the sites each winter.
Credit U.S. Forest Service

High up in the mountains of the Chugach and Tongass forests, there are over 50 radio communication sites. The U.S. Forest Service uses them to send radio communications from one side of the mountains to the other, and back to the service dispatch in Anchorage. 

The sites are important to the service all year long, said Alaska Region Radio Manager Stacy Griffith.

“Most would think that it’s only for fires," he said. "And that’s not the case. Our avalanche crews, our avalanche teams in Girdwood, they rely upon them. Our employees that are traveling the Seward Highway. As we all know, the Seward Highway is very dangerous and cellphone service can be very spotty, at best.”

The service also has agreements with local first responders so they can use them for communications. On the peninsula, there are sites on Cooper Mountain, Paradise Peak, Mount Madson and up in Resurrection Pass.

The batteries that power the sites run on solar energy. When it snows, the panels get buried and the Forest Service sends helicopters up to clear them, sometimes four times a winter. Not only can that be dangerous for pilots and staff, but it can cost almost $30,000 a year.

“We are constantly testing different kinds of equipment on the mountaintop to see what is going to work best in such extreme environments," Griffith said.

They’ve finally found a technology that does the job. It’s called a “solid oxide fuel cell” and it works by combining a small amount of propane with air for a chemical reaction. That produces electricity to charge the batteries.

“So it only uses very little propane to ignite it," he said. "It essentially eats itself to provide batteries, is what it does. The emissions are extremely low and it’s water vapor coming out of it.”

A very small amount of carbon dioxide is also a byproduct.

Griffith stumbled across the cells in 2015 and fell in love with the technology. They turn on only when the solar power isn’t working and shut off automatically when the batteries are fully juiced up.

The up-front costs associated with the cells is steep. Each fuel cell is about $16,000, and the service has to send people up to install them.

But the cells ultimately save the service money long term, since it doesn’t have to do so many maintenance trips to clear snow.

On average, a cell might be on for 60 hours a year. Each cell is supposed to last 3,000 hours. 

“So essentially, on paper, they’re supposed to last for 49 years," Griffith said. "Now, do I expect any piece of equipment to last 49 years? No. But having the reliability of these fuel cells is substantial.”

Griffith said other regions of the Forest Service in the Lower 48 are interested in incorporating the technology, as well.

The Forest Service has outfitted 21 communications sites with fuel cells, including three of the four on the Kenai Peninsula. Griffith said they hope to install the remaining nine by this summer.