Hydrogen Fuel Cells Power Bank Data Center

The data center for First National Bank of Omaha is powered by hydrogen fuel cells, operating completely "off the grid."

Green data centersThe First National Bank of Omaha wanted to ensure that its data center couldn't be knocked offline by a tornado or power outage. So in 1999 it built a new data center in the underground levels of its Omaha building, encased in concrete walls that can withstand winds of 260 miles per hour. The facility is also powered by hydrogen fuel cells, operating completely "off the grid."

"We built the building to be self-contained," First National CIO and SVP Ken Kucera told US Banker, which has a profile of the unusual data center. "If the whole city of Omaha loses public power, we don't lose it." The servers and cooling equipment in the FNBO data center are supported by four phosphoric acid fuel cells that generate up to 225 kilowatts of power.

FNBO is among a handful of U.S. data center facilities either partially or fully powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which are more expensive than traditional power generation sources. Others include a large Verizon data center on Long Island and a Fujitsu facility in Sunnyvale, Calif. (see photos here).

Both the Verizon and Fujitsu facilities use fuel cell systems from UTC. APC recently introduced Fuel Cell Extended Run (FCXR), a hydrogen-based fuel cell backup solution that integrates with the company’s InfraStruXure racks and enclosures. MGE and Siemens also tested fuel cell solutions for data centers, but later discontinued the programs, according to SearchDataCenter.

The primary obstacle to fuel cell adoption is cost. Fujitsu's fuel cell project was feasible largely due to $500,000 in rebates from local utility PG&E, which will allow the company to recover its costs in approximately 3.5 years. Verizon spent $13 million to install seven fuel cells, and says the technology it is saving about $680,000 a year in power bills and related costs. According to EPA figures, most companies would require nearly 16 years to earn a payback on fuel cell installations, even with government tax credits and subsidies.

First National Bank of Omaha paid $2.6 million for its four fuel cells, which it says works out to an equivalent of 15 cents per Kwh, as opposed to the local utility rate of 3.5 cents. But the company has a different rationale supporting its investment. US Banker reports that FNBO "gets its ROI in part from not needing to build or maintain a new $75 million-plus backup data center."

FNBO is a $16 billion bank and the nation's fifth-busiest credit card processor. Some industry veterans might question the wisdom of supporting that large an operation with a single data center. But executives at the Omaha bank say they have been running the system since 1999 without a single outage.

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