Data center provider Equinix bets big on fuel cells

In an effort to become 100% reliant on renewable fuels, Equinix is turning to natural gas-powered fuel cells from Bloom Energy to power 12 of its U.S. data centers.

Data center provider Equinix bets big on Bloom Energy fuel cells
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Data center provider Equinix is making a big bet on fuel cells to power its facilities by installing natural gas-powered fuel cells at 12 of its U.S. data centers. It’s part of a push for the firm to be 100% reliant on renewable fuels, and it could set an example for other data centers in power management.

Equinix uses fuel cells developed by Bloom Energy, a leader in the data center energy market that has been profiled by 60 Minutes and whose giant “batteries” are installed at data centers run by eBay, Apple, NTT, CenturyLink and Verizon.

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Bloom’s fuel cells produce significantly fewer carbon emissions than traditional gas-fueled power plants, and natural gas is cleaner burning. Also, the Bloom cells don’t require water, unlike traditional power plants, which need large amounts of water to generate energy and keep cool. 

The technology produces the energy on-site rather than piping it in over the electrical grid. eBay, for example, uses Bloom fuel cells to power its Utah data center and uses the electrical grid for backup. In the old scenario, eBay would use the grid for the primary source and diesel generators for backup.

All told, the 12 Equinix data centers powered by the Bloom cells will generate about 37 megawatts, making it the largest single deployment of fuel cells for data centers to date. Equinix is the world’s largest colocation and interconnection company and has a long-term goal of powering its data centers with 100% renewable energy. So far, it’s at 56%, according to its most recent sustainability report.

Fuel cells for all data centers? 

What’s good for Equinix will undoubtedly be good for the rest of the data center market, including private data centers. Data centers are a massive power drain nationally. According to a government study, U.S. data centers consumed about 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2014, the most recent year examined, which accounts for 2% of the country’s total energy consumption. 

The biggest obstacle to fuel cell adoption is they are very expensive. You take a big up-front hit in cost and realize the savings over time, which can be a deal breaker for smaller, less capitalized firms. Bloom has had a leasing program since 2013 for its energy cells, allowing customers to pay for the product over time. The leasing is financed by Bank of America. 

With our creaky old electrical grid at capacity and the desire to go green, any steps that can be taken will be welcomed. And the Bloom energy cells aren’t limited to just the data center. They can power an entire company’s facility, not just the server room. 

Let Equinix lead the way and go through the learning curve, but this could be a new way for companies to power their facilities—all of it—not just the data center.

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