Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Keeping the World Online

December 8, 2020

Even before the pandemic moved many of life’s daily functions online, there has been a seismic shift towards relying on the cyber world for all things financial, as well as a need to keep their related systems running.

Reliable, continuous, efficient, and high-quality power ensures there are no hiccups in these operations, which could cost companies and citizens millions per minute. Members of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA) include leading fuel cell manufacturers with systems geared toward the primary and backup stationary power market sectors.

Bloom Energy, FuelCell Energy, and Doosan Fuel Cell America collectively have hundreds of large-scale stationary fuel cells in the field keeping businesses of all stripes running seamlessly around the world. These fuel cells typically range from 200 kilowatts (kW) to multi-megawatts (MW) in size and utilize natural gas or biogas to generate power onsite.

FCHEA members have hundreds of large-scale stationary fuel cells in the field keeping businesses running seamlessly.

Plug Power and Altergy Systems collectively have thousands of smaller hydrogen fuel cells deployed ensuring that communication networks and other critical infrastructure never go offline. Building on that success, in 2020, Plug Power announced it was entering the large-scale stationary market as well, with the GenSure HP proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell product line.

Hydrogen to Decarbonize Energy Intensive Data Centers

With increased interest and investment in the fuel cell and hydrogen industry from a range of stakeholders, there has been focus on utilizing these technologies to not only provide reliable power, but also to decarbonize energy intensive industries, such as data centers. This has expanded the playing field to other FCHEA members, including PowerCell, Aris Energy Solutions, Cummins, and Power Innovations.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is supporting this momentum nationally with the H2@Scale initiative, driving research, development, and demonstration centered around large-scale hydrogen production, storage, distribution, and utilization in a range of applications, including industrial and energy-intensive sectors. In July, H2@Scale awarded $6 million for a project aimed at developing a hydrogen fuel cell system for a data center.

The DOE H2@Scale initiative is driving research and development centered around large-scale hydrogen production.

Another DOE H2@Scale project, Demonstration and Framework for H2@Scale in Texas and Beyond, aims to show the potential of integrating hydrogen with multiple co-located platforms and existing resources, including at a data center. Fuel cell manufacturer PowerCell is working with Hitachi ABB Power Grids to jointly develop a complete power system that will be installed at the Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. This includes a fuel cell system that will be powered with renewably generated hydrogen. PowerCell currently offers the MS-100 100-kW stationary fuel cell system built around its S3 fuel cell stack, which is also the building block for customized megawatt solutions in both the marine and stationary segments.

In September, DOE, through the Office of Fossil Energy, awarded $2.66 million to Aris Energy Solutions for Modular Fuel Cells Providing Resiliency to Data Centers and Other Critical Power Users, a three-year project which will partner Aris with the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), West Virginia University, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Gaia Energy Research Institute, and Velocity Data Centers. The project will not only run Aris’ small-scale solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) BlueGen system at a data center, the fuel cell will also be configured to run on a hydrogen/natural gas blend.

Cummins, Inc. received $2.6 million under that same Fossil Energy Funding Opportunity announcement to design and develop a 20-kW SOFC system for data centers. Cummins will work with the University of Connecticut.

Companies mentioned in the report, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, already have fuel cells deployed at facilities.

Recent Report Highlights Data Centers as a Key End User Market

A recent report from McKinsey & Company, Road Map to a U.S. Hydrogen Economy, also highlights data centers as a key end user market sector looking to decarbonize, and points to the potential for hydrogen and fuel cells to make an immediate impact and find significant room to grow. The report claims that 40% of the world’s hyperscale data centers are located in the U.S., as well as 1,800 data hubs owned by large technology companies. Many of the companies mentioned in the report, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, already have fuel cells deployed at facilities. Combined with others, they could create annual demand for 1,500 MW of stationary power capacity by 2030.

The Road Map estimates that fuel cells could achieve cost parity with diesel generators in data centers in three to five years, and that around 45% of data centers could use hydrogen fuel cells as backup power by 2030, growing to 65% by 2050.

One of the companies that contributed to the McKinsey study is Microsoft, which has been dipping its toes in the fuel cell pool for the last few years, researching and testing alternatives to diesel generators to power data center racks, servers, and systems.

Most recently, Microsoft and Power Innovations completed a landmark test of a full data center load using hydrogen fuel cells. The Power Innovations 250-kW PEM fuel cell system powered 10 racks of data center servers for 48 hours, generating 10,560 kWh of electricity with only 814 kilograms of hydrogen. The system also produced more than 7,000 liters of pure water. Microsoft is developing transportable, self-contained Azure modular data centers as part of an effort to integrate more renewable energy sources and provide critical infrastructure where needed, such as military missions or for disaster response. The successful test of Power Innovations’ fuel cell system shows that this modular data center could feasibly integrate a fuel cell system and even come equipped with an electrolyzer to generate hydrogen as needed.

As business and daily life becomes more and more reliant on digital technology, the need for data centers is not going to slow down. All that storage will need more and more power to keep us all up and running in every facet of our lives. Fuel cells and hydrogen will play a key role to make sure that power is clean, reliable, and always on.