eBay to build huge Bloom Energy fuel cell farm at data center

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eBay just one-upped Apple’s data center fuel cell farm. On Thursday the commerce giant announced that it is building additional capacity at its data center in Utah and it plans to power that new capacity with 30 fuel cells from Bloom Energy. The Bloom Energy fuel cells will run on biogas and will make that section of the data center grid independent, says eBay.

Fuel cells are large industrial devices that resemble refrigerators. They take fuel, like natural gas or biogas, combine it with oxygen, and run it over chemicals to produce electricity. The electricity is generally more expensive than grid power, but can be cleaner (if it’s running on biogas) and is also a distributed system.

eBay says the 6 MW project will be “the largest non-utility fuel cell installation,” out there. Apple is building a 4.8 MW Bloom Energy fuel cell project at its data center in Maiden, North Carolina. A utility in Delaware is building a project that could be 30 MW in size.

eBay says the section of the data center that will use the fuel cells will be grid-independent, and will only use the grid as back up power. Bloom Energy has made a consistent effort in recent months to make its fuel cells reliable enough to provide power to the data center industry. The company launched a data center focused division earlier this year and hired on Peter Gross, who co-founded and led data center design and operation firm EYP Mission Critical Facilities, which Hewlett-Packard bought in 2007.

eBay also has a 665 kilowatt solar panel installation on the roof of the first section of the Utah data center. But as Amazon’s web infrastructure guru James Hamilton pointed out recently, these types of solar panel installations at data centers are usually small enough that they only power a portion of the data center’s needs.

The first phase of eBay’s Utah data center is called Topaz. The second phase will be called Quicksilver — that’s the one that will be getting the Bloom installation. When Quicksilver turns on, it will only be about 1MW in capacity, and an eBay spokesperson tells me they”ll be using the balance to power Topaz. “It will take a few months (at least) for Quicksilver to get to full capacity,” and “In short, the entire Utah site will come offline at launch,” says a spokesperson.

Bloom Energy is an 11-year-old Silicon Valley company that has raised at least $650 million (and is closing another round of funding). The company is backed by venture capitalists like Kleiner Perkins, and New Enterprise Associates.

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