Above: 3 MW Plug Power fuel cell installation, Latham, NY. This Microsoft demonstration project, carried out in 2022, showed how PEM fuel cells can provide emissions-free backup power for datacentres

The potential of fuel cells as a means of cutting the greenhouse gas emissions associated with powering datacentres was a recurring conversation topic across the datacentre industry in 2022. It looks like a debate which is also set to continue in 2023.

However, 2022 may yet turn out to have been pivotal for hydrogen fuel cell technology for backup power and even primary datacentre applications. Across the world, there was positive news about hydrogen fuel cells as a cleaner alternative, such as that provided by Microsoft.

As part of its datacentre advanced development strategy, the technology giant ran a proof of concept in Latham, New York, where dual 40 ft containers housing Plug Power proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells ran at 3 MW capacity to provide emission free power for around 10 000 datacentre servers. The story is fully documented Microsoft’s case study (https://news.microsoft.com/source/features/sustainability/hydrogen-fuel-cells-could-provide-emission-free-backup-power-at-datacenters-microsoft-says/).

In September, it was reported that Equinix and the National University of Singapore are to test hydrogen fuel cells as a power source for datacentres in the city-state. According to an article published by DatacenterDynamics, the plan is to run a comparison between hydrogen fuel cells and “fuel flexible” linear generators, which can run on hydrogen, or else shift to other renewable fuels such as biogas when necessary.

In February 2022, The Register reported that Dutch Datacentre business NorthC was to replace its backup power generators at the company’s facility in Groningen with a 500 kW fuel cell module running on green hydrogen produced from renewable power, claiming it was a European first for datacentre design.

Recent analysis by Emergen Research, a market research and strategic consulting company, says “the fuel cell market size reached USD 4.26 billion in 2021 and is expected to register a CAGR of 22.8%.” The company cites growing demand for fuel cells for backup power in datacentres as one of the key factors driving growth.

In addition to their high efficiency, low carbon footprint and ability to provide reliable power, hydrogen fuel cells also appeal because they can help datacentres save money by reducing the amount of energy wasted during the power generation process, says Emergen. More details of their Fuel Cells Market Report can be found on the Emergen website.

Gaining an objective view of fuel cell applicability in datacentres

The above examples provide a flavour of the news coverage and broader discussion around fuel cells. For those in the datacentre industry who wish to explore the potential of fuel cell use, i3 Solutions Group has produced a white paper, Assessment of fuel cells application in datacentres for greenhouse gas abatement benefits.

This publication provides a high-level perspective on the application benefits of and challenges of using fuel cells for datacentre backup and primary power. It provides a simple description of fuel cells by operation and type, as well as detailing the different fuel cell types suitable for use in datacentres. Details of primary and backup power configurations are also provided.

Assessment of fuel cells application in datacentres for greenhouse gas abatement benefits explains the sustainability benefits of fuel cell technology in terms of emissions abatement, reduced transmission losses and potential for heat reuse. It also includes a comparison of the sustainability performance indicators for fuel cells versus gas turbines and combined cycle power plants, with natural gas as the common fuel.

From potential to production

Whilst the white paper indicates there are many clear sustainability advantages to be gained by using fuel cells for datacentres, actual adoption today remains low. This may in part be due to perceptions held by the industry about fuel cells, from concerns about reliability and availability, to those regarding fuel supply and the cost of ownership.

However, fuel cells are projected to achieve cost parity with diesel generators in datacentres, partly driven by the higher adoption of fuel cells for transportation applications.

More widespread use in other sectors will also help inform and educate regarding fuel cell technology, driving improvements to the technology, and providing the economies of scale associated with higher volumes such as reductions in the cost of key components and manufacturing.

And as the examples mentioned above show, hydrogen fuel cells are being piloted and tested as replacements for diesel generator backup power in datacentres.

However, if fuel cells are truly to move from potential to production in the datacentre industry, overcoming the challenges identified in Assessment of fuel cells application in datacentres for greenhouse gas abatement benefits will be key.

Author: Ed Ansett, founder and chairman, i3 Solutions Group