Finding an effective way to store vast amounts of energy is one of the most important and toughest pieces of the renewable-energy puzzle. Until it’s solved, users that need power around the clock will have to rely on regular grid power to pick up the slack when sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing.
It is this piece of the puzzle that Microsoft is going after with its latest investment in research of alternative energy sources for its data centers. The company has partnered with two companies and a university on a pilot program to research and test a new battery technology to see if it could provide a viable way to provide effective energy storage for its enormous global data center fleet.
Instead of storing energy in an electrode material the way conventional batteries do, flow batteries rely on chemical components dissolved in liquids. The technology promises to provide energy storage with more longevity, but its current implementations are less powerful and more complex than the incumbent alternatives. Flow batteries can also be recharged almost instantly by replacing the liquid.
Data Center Knowledge recently asked customers of data center services how important renewable energy is in their data center selection strategy. Download results of the survey in full here: Renewable Energy and Data Center Services in 2016
Microsoft buys about 3,500GWh of electricity a year to power its global operations, according to a US government announcement, and it has publicly committed to work toward being able to rely exclusively on renewable energy. If the pilot project is successful, flow batteries could bring the company much closer to that goal.
Its partners on the project are flow-battery startup Primus Power, Houston-based energy company NRG Energy, and University of Texas at San Antonio. “Multi-hour duration flow batteries, like those pioneered by Primus, are being evaluated for their ability to deliver uniform power for 20 years without fade or component replacement,” Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, wrote in a blog post.
Microsoft has committed $1 million to this research, and NRG ha matched Microsoft’s commitment, San Antonio Business Journal reported.
Microsoft has a number of ongoing research and pilot projects with the goal of identifying viable alternative energy sources for data centers. One of them is using fuel cells to convert waste from a wastewater treatment plant in Wyoming to energy for a data center module. Another is installing small gas-fueled fuel cells directly into data center racks.
The flow-battery project is one of many energy storage initiatives by federal and state-level agencies, utilities, and private-sector companies President Barack Obama’s administration announced out in June. Other initiatives include federal investment in utility-scale battery and renewable energy generation projects for military bases in the US and other federal buildings as well as research by Department of Energy’s national labs.
The administration is a big proponent of developing renewable energy sources and technologies that enable more renewable energy use. Of all those technologies, energy storage is one of the most important and difficult areas. Effective utility-scale energy storage enables big electricity users to take advantage of intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.
The White House announcement touted the fact that US had doubled the installed capacity of advanced energy storage in 2015 to 500MW.