Another California data center turns to fuel cells

Bloom Energy's fuel cells, image courtesy of Bloom Energy.

A small, but growing, amount of data centers in California are having fuel cells installed onsite, offering a cleaner and more direct way to access electricity compared to the power grid. The latest came on Monday, when telecommunications company CenturyLink announced that it’s bought a couple fuel cells from startup Bloom Energy to help power a data center in Irvine, California.

Fuel cells are devices that combine a fuel like natural gas with air and turn it into electricity through a chemical reaction. Bloom Energy’s fuel cells are “solid oxide fuel cells” that use a solid ceramic material as the electrolyte part of the fuel cell (if you think of it like a battery that has an electrolyte, an anode and a cathode).

Bloom EnergyCenturyLink’s data center in Irvine is operated by Savvis and the data center powers cloud, managed hosting and colocation services. Bloom Energy has increasingly been targeting data center operators by making its fuel cell systems ultra reliable — web site customers need their sites to stay up 24/7 as a critical part of their business. Data center operators are becoming interested in fuel cells as a way to become less dependent on the power grid, and also as a way to make their power sources cleaner, and to meet sustainability goals.

CenturyLink’s small move is just the latest telecom and Internet company to start dabbling with fuel cells in California. Other companies that have installed Bloom Energy fuel cells for data centers in California include Verizon (ten fuel cells), AT&T, NTT America (five fuel cells) and eBay. eBay also has a huge fuel cells data center project in Utah. Adobe has a large installation on its rooftop in San Jose, Calif.

Bloom Energy, Fuel Cells, Not A Good Match For Utilities -- YetCalifornia is one of Bloom Energy’s most important markets. The state offers valuable incentives that lower the cost of the fuel cells in the state. Verizon bought fuel cells from another vendor outside of California, but inside California went with Bloom Energy.

While fuel cells are still a very small part of the power sources for data centers, new projects are coming online that show how fuel cells could be a larger part of the equation. eBay’s Utah data center is powered primarily with fuel cells, and it’s using the grid as backup power. Apple has also installed a large amount of fuel cells at its data center in North Carolina.

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