How fuel cells could power the transition to a greener datacentre industry

In this guest post, Russel Bulley, senior application engineer at datacentre equipment manufacturer Vertiv, shares his thoughts on how fuel cell technology could help the server farm industry go greener

It is no secret that sustainability and carbon reduction is top of the agenda for organisations across the globe, including datacentre operators, as the world’s reliance on cloud services and digital technology amasses more data than ever.

And, while there’s plenty of good work being done, not least in the world of renewable energy use, the industry is always looking at “what’s next” on the green agenda.

One of the topics making big waves today is whether it’s possible to harness fuel cell technology to power datacentres. Fuel cells are fast becoming recognised as a cleaner and quieter power solution that can alleviate demand on urban power grids, and can be deployed on-site at a datacentre or other campus, operated using natural gas, biogas, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) or hydrogen.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are a particularly attractive proposition; costs are plummeting, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it can provide the reliability of a steady, constant energy source. What’s more, hydrogen fuel cells are more efficient than many other energy sources and have a higher energy density.

However, from a practical point of view, the onsite storing and movement of gas can be expensive and road transport delivering hydrogen still uses fossil fuels – factors that need to be worked on. An additional consideration is the cost for compression and liquification using green energy are currently high, but the expectation is that costs will fall with greater use and more local H2 production sites.

An increasing area of focus

Promisingly, there’s plenty of research being done and trials taking place in the arena. For example, Vertiv is part of a consortium of seven companies that have come together to explore an integration of solid-oxide fuel cells with uninterruptible power supply (UPS) technology and lithium-ion batteries to provide resilient and clean primary power to datacentre deployments and other critical infrastructure. The project, called EcoEdge PrimePower or E2P2, aims to develop the authoritative open standard for fuel cell applications to lay the foundations for the commercialisation of fuel cell energy for datacentres in Europe, demonstrating the industry’s potential role in achieving EU carbon reduction targets.

We know that implementing natural gas solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) as a prime power application will be instrumental to pave the way for the use of green hydrogen for fuel cells, for both backup and prime power systems. And the good news is these types of initiatives are receiving investment.

Indeed, the Clean Hydrogen Partnership, which is co-founded by the European Union, has provided €2.5 million to support this particular project. Other similar projects include the UK government’s £26m BEIS Industrial Hydrogen Accelerator (IHA) innovation programme and the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) $504.4 guarantee for world’s largest clean hydrogen and energy storage project.

There is proof of fuel cells working outside of these trials too. In 2020 Microsoft announced it had successfully used hydrogen fuel cells to power a row of datacentre servers for 48 consecutive hours. And Vertiv, is planning to develop UPS technology that can interact with fuel cell technology, as standard, within the next year.

Addressing the challenges

Of course, we know there is some way to go before fuel cell technology hits the mainstream, not least because costs need to fall and methods of obtaining hydrogen need to develop further (moving from brown to green hydrogen, without the use of fossil fuels in the extraction process).

It is also likely that we’ll see fuel cells replacing diesel generators in the future for back-up power first, before the technology gets used more widely – although we are also involved in the E2P2 proof of concept project which looks at fuel cell technology as the main power source. Fuel cell technology cannot fully take the place of bi-directional batteries because it is uni-directional, but they can work in parallel with batteries.

Even more investment is needed if fuel cells are to reach the point where they become a genuinely viable energy source for this, transport and other power-hungry industries. And a pressing global challenge for the development of widespread and sustainable hydrogen energy is how best to incrementally build the “supply and demand” chain in the most cost-effective manner.

Despite these challenges, however, the scene is set for fuel cells to help power part of the long-forecast clean energy transition for the data centre industry. And, it’s crucial to increase the use of renewable energy sources. As data consumption grows at an increasing pace, it is even more vital to fast-track our journey towards an environmentally sustainable future. We believe that this can only be made possible by developing innovative technologies such as fuel-cell solutions to provide carbon-neutral power for the digital world.

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