Telecommunications giant AT&T will install Bloom Energy fuel cells at 11 sites in California, including some of the companies' data centers and network facilities. The company will use Bloom Energy Servers - known as "Bloom boxes" - to supply 7.5 megawatts of power at its properties, the company told Data Center Dynamics. The Bloom units will be deployed later this year and be operational in early 2012.
The Bloom Box contains an array of fuel cells that can convert air and nearly any fuel source – ranging from natural gas to a wide range of biogases – into electricity via a clean electrochemical process, rather than dirty combustion. Even running on a fossil fuel, the systems are approximately 67 percent cleaner than a typical coal-fired power plant, according to Bloom.
Blue Chip Early Adopters
Each Bloom Energy Server provides 100 kilowatts of power in roughly the footprint of a parking space. The company has deployed its units at a lineup of blue-chip customers including Bank of America, Coca-Cola, eBay, FedEx, Staples and Wal-Mart. Perhaps the best known early adopter is Google, which has a 400 kw installation of Bloom boxes at its headquarters, but hasn't used them in its data centers.
While 100 kilowatts is a lot of power for some commercial buildings, it’s a fraction of what would be needed for a major data center. 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. Bloom’s customers say the boxes’ cost works out to about 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour, but only when state and federal tax incentives are included. See Can Bloom Boxes Power Data Centers for more on this topic.