Bloom Energy and Fuel Cells in the Data Center: Evolution or Revolution?

Aug. 13, 2015
Bloom Energy Server fuel cells are being seen in more data centers as the industry focuses on carbon output. In making the case for fuel cells, Bloom is advancing a fundamental rethinking of data center power systems.

The data center industry is getting comfortable with Bloom Energy fuel cells. You can now find the silvery “Bloom boxes” at data centers operated by eBay, Equinix, Apple, CenturyLink, AT&T, Verizon and NTT America, supporting more than 150 megawatts worth of mission-critical IT operations.

That’s a meaningful footprint for a technology that made its debut just five years ago. But for Bloom, it represents a beachhead on a larger mission to transform how data centers are powered and equipped. The company is positioning its fuel cells as a tool to overhaul the traditional power architecture of mission-critical facilities, eliminating the need for expensive UPS systems and emergency backup generators.

“I honestly feel this is going to be the most disruptive technology to hit this industry in 20 years,” said Peter Gross, Vice President of Mission Critical Systems for Bloom Energy. “It’s the next big thing.”

Thus far only a couple of projects have embraced Bloom’s full vision, using Bloom boxes as their primary power source and the utility grid for backup power. Most customers have incorporated the fuel cells into their existing power architecture, putting a toe in the water rather than diving into the deep end of the pool.

Rethinking the Data Center Power Chain

To realize its ambitions, Bloom must overcome the challenging economics of deploying fuel cells at data center scale, as well as the glacial pace of adoption of many new technologies in enterprise data centers. It’s a shift that requires a fundamental rethinking of the way data centers are powered, placing fuel cells in a prominent position in the power chain. And that will take some time.

Gross is the point man on this effort. He has no illusions about the challenge before him, but he comes to the task with a resume that commands attention. Gross has been a pioneer in advanced data center design for decades, first at EYP Mission Critical Design and later at HP. He believes the growing focus on data center sustainability creates a huge opportunity for Bloom Energy.

“It’s clear to me that enterprises are truly interested in reducing their carbon footprint,” said Gross. “For mission-critical apps, there is no other solution. Solar and wind are not yet truly mission-critical. CHP (combined heat and power) has never caught on in the data center. It’s not yet a component of data center infrastructure. Bloom has been the only game in town for high-reliability, carbon-neutral facilities.”

Bloom isn’t the only player seeking to build traction for fuel cells in data centers. Other approaches seek to harness a range of renewable fuel sources, or position fuel cells at the rack level to power servers. But Bloom has emerged as the market leader in mission-critical fuel cells, and looms as the best hope for establishing them as a standard component of data center infrastructure.

The Case for ‘Better Electrons’

The Bloom Energy Server uses solid oxide fuel cell technology that converts fuel to electricity through an electro-chemical reaction, without any combustion. It can work with either natural gas or biofuels, such as biogas from landfills. After years of development, the company came out of stealth in 2010 with a list of marquee corporate customers, including Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Walmart, eBay and Google.

A Bloom Energy Server fuel cell deployed at CalTech. (Image: Bloom Energy)

Bloom says that its on-site fuel cells offer “better electrons” by making more efficient use of fuel than coal-fired power plants, eliminating power loss during distribution, and sharply reducing emissions. The Bloom boxes offer a better carbon profile than most utility power, and can be used with renewable energy to create a carbon-neutral solution.

One of the primary barriers to adoption in data centers has been the cost of the fuel cells, and the scale required to support facilities using many megawatts of electricity.

“Fuel cells have been around forever, but nobody’s been able to achieve a fuel cell system that’s cost-effective,” said Gross.

Bloom Energy Servers offer up to 200kW of capacity. Early Bloom installations took advantage of incentives that reduced the cost of power, which without incentives would operate at between 8 and 13 cents per kilowatt hour, according to various estimates. Bloom says Bloom Energy Server users typically see a 3 to 5 year payback on their investment.

But that varies by geography. Bloom has done best in regions where the cost of electricity is high and the price of natural gas is low.

“In California and the Northeast states the economics work really well,” said Gross, noting that those two regions are major data center markets. “This solution will not be applicable in central Washington state, where the cost of power is low. But gas is cheap everywhere and will be for a long time.”

Why Change is Difficult

So how do you make the economics more compelling? By using Bloom boxes to eliminate other expensive equipment in the data center power chain. When you add Bloom Energy Servers but subtract the expense of UPS units and generators, the cost equation looks very different.

Gross jokes that “everybody wants innovation, as long as it’s been in place for 20 years.”

“In the data center industry, innovation comes at a slow pace, especially on the electrical side,” he said. “It’s moved a little faster on cooling, where the big Internet companies have been innovating. On the electrical side, the basic architecture has been effectively the same for 20 years. Nothing fundamental has changed.

“Historically, there is no real incentive for innovation in this industry because the stakes are so high,” Gross added. “For adoption to improve, a senior person in the company has to push for this. These systems are not inexpensive, and having an executive sponsor is helpful.”

eBay Goes All In

An executive sponsor like Dean Nelson, perhaps. As Vice President for Global Foundation Services at eBay, Nelson runs the data center network for the e-commerce giant. He has made innovation a priority, working with eBay’s vendors to develop cutting-edge solutions that can make its data centers more energy efficient and cost-effective.

In 2012, eBay went all-in with the Bloom solution, installing 30 Bloom boxes to support a new phase of eBay’s “Project Quicksilver” data center in South Jordan, Utah.

In a traditional configuration, data centers use the utility grid for primary power, with UPS units and backup generators providing emergency power in the event of grid outages. At eBay, the Bloom Energy Servers provide primary power, with the utility grid serving as backup. High-density modular data centers are packed with dual-corded servers, with one input from the Bloom systems and the other from the grid.

In this video, Nelson and Gross discuss the Utah project and how eBay is using Bloom to achieve “cleaner commerce.”

The eBay data center has been online for nearly two years. In April, the Bloom boxes performed flawlessly in keeping the eBay facility online throughout a utility outage. In seeking to convince others to adopt a similar approach, the success of eBay is an important validation.

“There are systems that have been running for two and a half years with good results,” said Gross. “Companies were skeptical, then looked at early adopters like eBay and understood the system performance, and became much more open to the idea. Now the number of companies inquiring is impressive.”

The Colo Sector

That renewed interest extends to multi-tenant data centers, which are traditionally cautious about implementing new technologies. This spring Bloom picked up CenturyLink and Equinix as customers, reflecting growing interest from colocation providers in addressing the sustainability of their energy infrastructure.

CenturyLink has added 500kW of Bloom Energy Servers as part of an expansion at a data center in Irvine, Calif. Company executives say customers are increasingly interested in power sourcing, and the Bloom installation will serve as a proof of concept to help CenturyLink assess how it may use fuel cells going forward. Significantly, CenturyLink says it is interested in a design that would use the Bloom units for primary power, with the grid as backup, but for the moment is in evaluation mode.

Equinix has opted for the green path, using biogas to power 1 megawatt of Bloom boxes. The company says the project at its SV5 data center in San Jose will avoid at least 1.6 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from the California grid. The fuel cell will produce an estimated 8.3 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy per year.

“It’s better for everyone if we make a strong move toward a more sustainable energy future,” said David Rinard, Senior Director of Global Sustainability & Procurement at Equinix, in a blog post. “Our Bloom Energy project and the renewable energy opportunities to come will take us closer.”

Bloom Energy server fuel cells at an AT&T data center in California. (Image: Bloom Energy)

With these projects, the colo companies are dipping a toe in the water. But the upside for Bloom could be substantial. Equinix operates more than 100 data centers around the globe, while CenturyLink has more than 50.

The implementations by Equinix and CenturyLink are typical of how many data centers are adopting fuel cells, integrating them into existing traditional power systems to see how they work. While this is short of Bloom’s larger vision for power architecture, Gross sees this as an important step in the transition to new electrical designs.

“There are a number of interim steps,” said Gross. “We don’t necessarily need to take a radical approach. You can use Bloom to feed a more traditional set of components, especially on upgrades and retrofits. You can still have generators.”

In some cases, Bloom units installed near data centers do not actually provide power to the facility. That’s the case at the Apple data center in Maiden, N.C., which has a 10 MW installation of Bloom fuel cells. The Bloom units run on a combination of natural gas and biogas from a nearby landfill, and send the power to Duke Energy rather than the Apple data center.

Fuel Cells: Beyond Bloom

Bloom isn’t the only player making fuel cells for data center use. Doosan has deployed fuel cells at data centers operated by the First National Bank of Omaha, Cox Communications and Verizon. Microsoft selected FuelCell Energy to provide the fuel cell to support its “Data Plant” proof of concept in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which is using methane gas from a water treatment plant to power a data center module.

Microsoft is also experimenting with a design in which it builds fuel cells into each rack of IT equipment, presenting an even more radical departure from current practice than the Bloom design. In this approach, the fuel lines would replace the traditional power distribution system, eliminating power loss from multiple conversions between AC and DC power.

“We believe the advancement being made in our fuel cell lab will someday change the game in terms of how energy is delivered and managed,” said Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager for Microsoft Global Foundation Services. “Our vision is to bring the power plant directly into the datacenter by integrating fuel cell stacks into every server cabinet, effectively eliminating energy loss that otherwise occurs in the energy supply chain and doubling the efficiency of traditional datacenters.”

Microsoft tested the concept last year at the University of California at Irvine, creating a 12kW rack supported by an off-the-shelf fuel cell. It is participating in a $5 million research project that will test the use of fuel cells from Redox Power Systems in its rack-level design.

A fuel cell “cube” from Redox Power, which is being tested by Microsoft for use in a rack-level fuel cell power design. (Photo: Redox Power)

James believes the simplified power design makes the economics work, offsetting the higher cost of the fuel cells. ‘

“By designing a system that is nearly twice as efficient (uses half the energy) as the traditional model for delivering electricity to a server, we can obviously pay more for electricity coming out of the fuel cell and still have a lower total cost,” James wrote in a blog post summarizing the research. “And that is just the energy cost savings. Once we add in the cost savings from the avoided infrastructure (the outlets, meters, power lines, power plants), we have a design that is more elegant, requires less energy and has the potential to be significantly less expensive than traditional datacenter designs.”

The Road Ahead: Economics & Education Loom Large

Not surprisingly, Gross agrees that the economics on fuel cells are shifting, even within traditional power architectures.

“Economics play a major role,” said Gross. “All these installations had to have a positive economic impact. People don’t spend more than they have to unless there’s a clear benefit.”

But the ultimate win for fuel cell economics will be in new power system designs that eliminate other components and their associated costs.

“Overprovisioning has been rampant in this industry,” said Gross. “There’s all this capacity sitting there idle. The Bloom architecture eliminates the overprovisioning.”

It remains to be seen whether data center operators are ready to embrace new power system designs based around fuel cells. But the push to build greener, more efficient and cost-effective data centers is offering fuel cells a seat at the table, and Gross expects the conversation to continue in earnest.

“I think education is the single most important thing,” said Gross. “The vast majority of people in this industry have very little understanding of Bloom. The reality is, very few people understand the architecture. Things are slowly getting better, and word is getting around.”

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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