Should fuel cells power your data centre?

Green and provide an independent power source

What's happening

Fuel cells are large containers that use hydrogen gas to generate power. Because they create no emissions, they also generate good publicity for companies concerned about their carbon footprints. At the First National Bank of Omaha, fuel cells provide high reliability and make a bold environmental statement to bank and credit card customers. Google uses fuel cells from Bloom Energy to power parts of its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters facility-also to prove its commitment to green computing. However, although the technology has been in use for more than 10 years, it has failed to become widely adopted, says Jim Tully, a Gartner analyst.

Why you care

The biggest benefit of fuel cells, according Mark Evanko, a principal engineer at Bruns-Pak, a data center design consultancy, is that they provide an independent power source. Producing power at a cost of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, fuel cells may cost less than electricity from the local utility. Electric rates depend on fuel costs, which are rising again. "A data center has a constant electrical demand, and that is increasing over time," Evanko observes. "If you can get your own power source and get off the grid, that can be very attractive."

Fuel cells are also appealing because they generate only water as waste, and they run silently, unlike generators. Brenda Dooley, president of First National Buildings, a First National Bank subsidiary that runs the company's facilities, says that if the bank is viewed as being conscious of its environmental impact, this will help attract customers. The bank, which operates in seven states, is a unit of First National of Nebraska, a financial services company with $17 billion in managed assets.

The real deal

In many areas, electricity still costs little enough that fuel cells don't make financial sense. Dooley says the local power company only charges four or five cents per kilowatt hour. In 1998, the bank chose fuel cells anyway because they're more reliable than traditional power sources. A single facility handles all of the bank's credit card processing, and losing power would be catastrophic-costing the bank as much as $6 million per hour. The fuel cells cost more to operate than traditional data center power sources but rarely fail, Dooley says. However, she adds, were the company building a data center today, she would also consider other options.

Aside from the higher cost, Tully says using fuel cells is risky, especially for important services. Part of the quandary is that fuel cells don't provide direct power; they charge batteries which in turn deliver electricity. So while they are extremely reliable, they aren't suited for radical changes in data center power needs. Furthermore, the hydrogen fuel needed isn't easily acquired everywhere, Tully adds, making diesel power more readily available.

What you should do

Fuel cells make the most sense if high reliability is a chief concern, or if you want to make a bold statement about the impact-or lack of it-your computer operations have on the Earth.

Read more about green data center in CIO's Green Data Center Drilldown.

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John Brandon

CIO (US)
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