Fuel cells that run on natural gas continue to make their way into the data center market. Following several major web-scale data center deployments, Sunnyvale, California-based Bloom Energy has sold a 500kW on-site power generation plant to CenturyLink, which has deployed it to power an expansion of its data center in Southern California.
The company initially announced the deal in 2013. The data center expansion and the Bloom installation are now complete, awaiting commissioning this month.
The fuel-cell system will provide part of the expansion’s 2MW load, making the Irvine facility the first multi-tenant data center in Southern California to use natural gas as a source of energy. Until now, Bloom’s data center business has been primarily with single-tenant facilities. An Apple data center in North Carolina and an eBay data center in Utah are two marquee examples.
Using natural gas may help the colocation provider make its services more attractive to customers that care about powering their infrastructure with clean energy. While there reportedly isn’t a lot of interest in clean energy among typical colocation customers, there is some, and there are also signs that the level of interest is growing.
Bloom Energy fuel cells at CenturyLink's Irvine, California, data center (Photo: CenturyLink)
CenturyLink regularly gets customer inquiries about renewable energy in its data centers, Drew Leonard, the company’s vice president of global colocation, said.
“That is only going to increase over time,” he said. “It’s going to make or break a lot of companies’ decisions about where they’re going to … colocate equipment.”
Part of CenturyLink’s business case for buying the Bloom fuel-cell system is also savings. The company expects operational savings over time, because gas is a lot cheaper than electricity in Irvine, and because gas lines are more reliable than electrical transmission lines. There are also federal tax incentives for using fuel cells and state incentives in California.
While the system is serving critical load, it is a pilot project. CenturyLink has more than 50 colocation data centers around the world, and if the deployment goes as expected, it may potentially turn into a much bigger deal for Bloom.
As eBay demonstrated with its latest data center in Utah, Bloom fuel cells make a very unusual, lean electrical design possible. Fuel cells are the primary source of all power for the data center with utility grid serving as backup, making uninterruptible power supplies, transfer switches, and generators unnecessary.
“That’s the beauty of this architecture,” Peter Gross, vice president of mission critical systems at Bloom, said. “This is what you call a mission-critical solution, where this replaces the UPS, and this replaces the generator.”
Gross couldn’t say exactly how many data centers have Bloom fuel cells powering them today citing confidentiality agreements with customers, some of whom are government agencies. But the number is somewhere close to 10, he said.