Google Using Bloom Box, But Not in Data Center

Google (GOOG) was the first customer for Bloom Energy, and is using the startup's gas-powered fuel cells in its operations. But contrary to early media reports, it is not using any of the "Bloom Boxes" in its data centers at present.

Google was the first customer for Bloom Energy, and is using the startup's gas-powered fuel cells in its operations. But is Google using the "Bloom Box" units in one of its data centers? 60 Minutes reported Sunday that Google has been using four Bloom Boxes to power one of its data centers for the last 18 months.

It turns out that's not quite correct. "These fuel cells aren't powering any off-site data centers," said a Google spokesperson. "Instead, Bloom fuel cells are powering a portion of Google's energy needs at our headquarters right here in Mountain View. This is another on-site renewable energy source that we're exploring to help power our facilities. We have a 400kW installation on Google’s main campus. Over the first 18 months the project has had 98% availability and delivered 3.8 million kWh of electricity."

The Bloom Energy units run on methane or other hydrocarbons. The machine produces electricity, as well as some heat, carbon dioxide and water. While 400 kilowatts is a lot of power for some commercial buildings, it's a fraction of what would be needed for a major data center. The same goes for the 98 percent availability, as data centers typically shoot for at least "four nines" (99.99 percent uptime) and beyond.

Despite those issues, there are a number of data center projects that have incorporated fuel cells using natural gas or biogas. Some previous examples:

  • T-Systems is using a “hot module” fuel cell to provide power for a server room in a facility in Munich, Germany, which runs on biogas supplied by a planet in nearby Pliening.
  • Fujitsu has used a fuel cell in its Sunnyvale data center. The fuel cell produce 200 kilowatts of power, which is enough to power half of the cooling needed in Fujitsu's data center.   
  • A Syracuse University data center is susing gas-powered microturbines, which generate electricity, while the hot exhaust is piped to the chiller room, where it is used to generate cooling for the servers and both heat and cooling for an adjacent office building.
  • Verizon has been using fuel cell technology to power one of its facilities in Garden City, N.Y., on Long Island. Seven fuel cells generate power for a 292,000-square-foot facility that provides telephone and data services to some 35,000 customers on Long Island

The primary barrier to use of fuel cells in data centers has been the up-front cost of the units. 60 Minutes reports that each Bloom unit costs $700,000 to $800,000. Venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Bloom Energy's backers, said the Bloom Box is intended to replace the grid for its customers. "It's cheaper than the grid, (and) it's cleaner than the grid," Doerr told 60 Minutes.

We'll no doubt hear more in a Wednesday press conference to officially launch Bloom Energy.

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