EBay Will Rely on Fuel Cells to Power Major Data Center

A significant vote of confidence in a technology and a company

2 min read
EBay Will Rely on Fuel Cells to Power Major Data Center

eBay announced this week that its expanded data center in Utah will rely on a 6 MW fuel cell array supplied by Bloom Energy, based in Sunnyvale, Cal., which makes an innovative solid oxide system. It will be the largest stationary fuel cell bank ever installed in a non-utility setting, and the first time a data center has been designed to rely on fuel cells as its primary energy source, with the grid serving as backup. The normal procedure is for data centers to get electricity from the grid, with some kind of backup system to kick in when the grid goes down—an expensive procedure.

The decision by eBay to commit to the Bloom energy system represents a significant vote of confidence not only in the company, which has has set itself the strategic objective of perfecting a fuel cell system reliable enough to power data centers, but also in the broader technology. A decade ago, mobile fuel cells fell out of favor and largely out of public view, when they failed to revolutionize vehicular transportation as manufacturers had promised. But meanwhile, makers of larger, stationary fuels cells have made steady if undramatic advances, building incrementally on existing technology like the solid oxide cell.

Advantages of the solid oxide fuel cell, which uses a ceramic electrolyte, include high efficiency, reliability and durability. A disadvantage is its high operating temperature, though waste heat can be used to generate the steam needed to reform a hydrocarbon feedstock. In the basic process, fuel reformed at the cathode—basically a source of hydrogen molecules—combine with oxygen from the anode to generate a current, with water and carbon dioxide the waste products. Bloom says it has made improvements in both materials and design, and though the details are proprietary, its claims appear to be validated by its market success. In the particular case of the fuel cell array Bloom is supplying eBay, most or all of the fuel is supposed to be derived from biogas. (Bloom's press release says flatly that the fuel cell bank will be powered by biogras; but an eBay spokesperson told the New York Times that  eBay "would pay a premium to enable the production of biogas somewhere in the United States in amounts comparable to its gas usage in South Jordan [Utah]."

In principle, whether the plant is running exclusively on biogas or biogras production is being subsidized to compensate for natural gas consumed at the plant, the facility would appear to be doubly green: It runs on a renenewable fuel and produces no solid waste, carbon dioxide being its only undesirable byproduct. So it's easy to see why the Bloom Energy Server is attractive to high-tech companies that depend on big energy-guzzling data centers and fervently wish to build green credentials. Apple has installed a 4.8 MW Bloom system at a North Carolina data center, albeit not one that will emphasize use of biogas. Facebook is putting a data center close to the Arctic Circle in Sweden, so that it can rely mainly on natural cooling rather than artificial refrigeration.

The Conversation (0)

Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less