Data centers full of million servers provide the backbone of the internet, delivering everything from chat videos to financial transactions to online gaming when and where you need it.
Given the importance of data centers, their operators – including Microsoft, Amazon and Google – strive to ensure that there is always power available to run them. This means having sufficient backup power from diesel generators and batteries in the event of a power outage.
But tech companies are also committing to ambitious climate goals that don’t add up to burning diesel from fossil fuels.
Microsoft has been working on cleaner alternatives and on Thursday announced what he calls a “moon landing moment” for the data center industry: the successful demonstration of a large-scale generator powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
“Nothing existed like this before we started this research project and got fuel cell companies to really think about stationary power,” Mark Monroe, principal infrastructure engineer for Microsoft, said in an interview with GeekWire. .
Hydrogen is gaining popularity around the world as a versatile and clean fuel. Microsoft has developed the Pilot Builder with Plug hole, a company specializing in fuel cells and hydrogen energy. The standby generator can produce up to 3 megawatts of power, which is enough to replace a diesel generator. The fuel cells are housed inside two 40-foot-long shipping containers.
Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, operates more than 200 data centers around the world, which serve as hardware for its highly profitable Azure cloud services.
“Stopping diesel would have multiple benefits beyond the basic moral imperative,” Moss said by email. “It’s easier for data centers to get permits because they don’t have to worry about [pollution] particles, and that means reduced emissions for increasingly climate-conscious customers.
Microsoft, in fact, has a tool that allows customers to calculate their emissions based on Azure. And it has set a 2030 goal of becoming carbon negative, which means it removes more carbon than it releases.
For the past four years, Microsoft has been testing smaller versions of hydrogen fuel cell generators. The company worked in collaboration with researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado and Power Innovations in Salt Lake City. The newest project with New York-based Plug Power generates 36 times more energy than their initial effort.
Microsoft officials say they are also looking for more efficient and longer-lasting batteries. The company also has a data center in Sweden that uses generators powered by more environmentally friendly diesel, made in part from renewable raw materials.
The system developed with Plug Power uses what is called proton exchange membrane, or PEM, fuel cell technology. PEM fuel cells generate electricity and heat by combining hydrogen and oxygen. Its “waste” is water.
The cells are fueled with hydrogen created as a by-product of the industrial manufacture of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. This source is considered “blue hydrogen”, meaning the fuel has climate impacts. Microsoft plans to switch to climate-neutral “green hydrogen” as fuel, but it is currently in limited supply.
Microsoft officials declined to say how many diesel generators it uses, calling it “more than hundreds”. Google estimated there are about 20 gigawatts of standby diesel generators around the world, said Moss of DatacenterDynamics.
But even at this level, the footprint is not gigantic.
“Emissions from diesel standby generators represent a small share of operational emissions for many large data center operators, so the immediate climate benefits are likely to be small,” said George Kamiyaa Paris-based digital energy analyst with the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The biggest impact, Kamiya said via email, is the ability to extend this technology to sectors such as hospitals that also rely on diesel generators.
“This in turn could have benefits for the power grid,” he said, “while reducing longer-term emissions.”
But there are still other hurdles to overcome before hydrogen fuel cells become a more widespread solution.
“Microsoft is leading the hydrogen charge, but [hydrogen] doesn’t have the same energy density as diesel, so you have to use a lot more space to store the same amount of energy,” Moss said. “It also doesn’t have such a robust supply chain, so you can’t guarantee a continuous supply when your supplies run out.”
Microsoft officials agreed that suppliers of fuel cell and green hydrogen hardware were lacking. But there are so many potential applications, the hope is that the software and cloud giant can help create demand for the sector to drive its growth.
“That’s why we’re interested in this topic,” said Brian Janous, Microsoft’s general manager, Energy & Sustainability. “Because way beyond this demonstration project, it’s really about how do we lean to really help accelerate the hydrogen economy.”