Fuel cells are ready for the data center. But is the data center ready for fuel cells?
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Fuel cell technology, an increasingly popular form of alternative energy, provides power by converting the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with an oxidizing agent. Fuel cells are used in a cogeneration capacity to provide primary or backup power in commercial, industrial and residential settings. But they are rarely used in data centers, which have traditionally relied on the electric grid for primary power, and UPS batteries and generators for backup.
Now, commercial fuel cell manufacturer ClearEdge Power of Hillsboro, Ore., is turning that model on its head: It wants data centers to use its natural gas-based fuel cells as primary power systems, and the electric grid in the event of an outage.
“This is a paradigm shift from traditional backup systems,” said Mike Upp, ClearEdge Power vice president of marketing. “Here, we’re saying we provide the primary power, and the [electric] grid is the backup.”
Data center operators that adopt fuel cell technology will benefit from environmentally friendly power that is relatively inexpensive and much more reliable than other alternative energy sources such as wind or solar, which are inherently intermittent, Upp said.
Fuel for the fire
The products ClearEdge is proposing for data center use are its new ClearEdge Plus, a modular protected load system that comes in configurations ranging from 5 kW to 25 kW, three of which can be ganged together to provide up to 75 kW. The system can deliver a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of about 9 cents per kWh. In addition, the company also has the ClearEdge CP, which adds a triple redundant architecture for applications that require mission-critical power delivery.
Fuel cell deployments in data centers are exceedingly rare, but data center operators who have taken the plunge report feeling good about their decision, said John Stanley, a research analyst for data centers and eco-efficient IT at 451 Research. Fujitsu America Inc., for example, deployed a hydrogen fuel cell from UTC Power on its Sunnyvale, Calif., campus in 2007, which continues to provide reliable primary power for the company today, Stanley said.
“Old timers like to joke that there are two times when a fuel cell can explode: when you turn it on, and when you turn it off,” Stanley said. But the Fujitsu fuel cell has thus far failed to live up to those expectations, he said.
Initially, ClearEdge is targeting data centers in select geographies, Upp said, including California, Korea and Austria, and eventually New York. Those areas are characterized by very high energy rates and/or government incentives or mandates to purchase alternative energy systems.
In California, for example, energy rates range from 17 to 23 cents/kWh. In that case, ClearEdge’s 9 cents/kWh represents a very favorable “spark spread,” Upp said, meaning that electricity can be produced for less than the cost of buying it from the grid.
But even in areas with moderately priced power and no government incentives to speak of, an unreliable power grid can help make the case for fuel cell technology, Upp said. “Unless there’s a compelling reason to be green, [fuel cell adoption] is more about being fail-safe.”
Besides, basing a data center power strategy on government incentives is asking for trouble, as a government giveth but also taketh away, said Hervé Tardy, a vice president and general manager at Eaton Corp., whose data center products include backup UPS and power distribution systems.
“I would be cautious of tax incentives coming from governments that have no money,” Tardy said.
Even if the numbers work, it will take a long time for fuel cells to take hold in data centers. “Data center operators are by nature conservative,” Stanley said. “The biggest challenge for the fuel cell guys will be to convince the data center guys to give up the generators and electric grid that they are comfortable with, and adopt a new technology.”