The largest telecoms group in the US, Verizon Communications, has unveiled an alternative energy product at the company's call-routing facility in Garden City, New York.

New York-based Verizon has built and is now operating the largest fuel cell project of its kind in the US. At a news conference, Verizon Chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg said the seven fuel cells were not only good for the environment but they also reduce dependence on commercial electric power and provide another layer of network reliability in the event of a disaster.

The fuel cells we are using here today help Verizon provide customers even more reliable communications services, whether for phone calls or high-speed data transmission, and at the same time the power is environmentally friendly and efficiently produced, Seidenberg said. We now look forward to studying this remarkable technology as it is being used over a period of years on such a large scale for the first time.

Over the past two years a great deal of VC funding has gone into companies developing fuel cell technology. However, this was mostly for companies developing an alternative power source for mobile devices, and certainly not entire structures.

Historically, fuel cells are a technology first pioneered by NASA for manned space flight. They generate electrical power through the combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, giving off water and heat as byproducts.

The advantage of the fuel cell approach instead of the rechargeable lithium ion battery, is that fuel cells offer greater lifespan, possibly as much as three times longer than a traditional lithium-ion battery. The idea behind fuel cell technology for mobile devices is that once a mobile device, be it a notebook, a PDA, or a mobile phone has run out of power, users can simply buy a replacement fuel pack (for under $1) to power the device.

Verizon’s Garden City project is unique because the existing commercial power grid, the new fuel cells and existing Verizon backup power work together to meet any set of operational needs required at the building. They include electrical backup for commercial power outages, natural disasters and periods of peak commercial power demands.

Major funding for the project was provided by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Verizon also expects to receive some funding from New York State Energy R&D Authority.

Verizon has installed outside the Garden City building seven fuel cells, each of which is capable of generating 200 kilowatts of electrical power per hour. That’s enough power to supply the energy needs of about 400 single-family households, or 57 homes per fuel cell. By using electricity from the fuel cells and reclaiming the heat and water they produce to help heat and cool the building, Verizon is eliminating some 11.1 million pounds of carbon dioxide that would have been emitted into the atmosphere by a similar-sized fossil-fuel based power plant during one year.

The project is expected to save Verizon some $250,000 annually in commercial power costs.

The new fuel cells will use natural gas piped in from local gas company Keyspan to obtain the hydrogen atoms for the chemical process. The natural gas is not burned. Instead, the hydrogen atoms are detached from the gas as it is fed into each of the seven cells, and then combined with oxygen atoms from the air to generate direct current electrical power. Heat and water is then vented from each cell, and direct current is converted to alternating current electricity for use in the building.

The Verizon central switching office in the building provides local, long-distance and data services over about 35,000 phone lines in the area. In addition, the building houses some of the company’s administrative offices and one of Verizon’s regional Network Surveillance Operations Centers. These centers monitor and control traffic on parts of the Verizon nationwide network.