I've been delivering the same story on self generation potential for data centers for some time now, which goes like this:
- Data centers are an attractive load for self gen because of their close to unity load factor, which means you can run some solutions (cogen and fuel cells) around the clock and recover your investment quickly.
- However, utilities reward large, high load factor customers with their lowest commercial/industrial rates, so you've got to be cheap.
- Data centers have very high reliability requirements, so operators are leery of increasing the complexity of their power delivery and conditioning schemes, a hurdle for all types of self gen.
- The last thing a data center has is a need for heat, so cogen schemes have to either find another host for waste heat, or turn to absorption chilling.
- Absorption chilling seems to be losing market share, and besides, new data center designs rely on air economizers with supplemental evaporative cooling, so have no need for cooling anyway.
- Solar PV has the natural advantage of a great green profile, and it delivers power when the utility rates are highest, but you need plenty of space to begin to make a mark against the loads of utility-scale data centers.
- Wind is as green as PV, but is not a self gen player. If you want wind power, you buy it on the market and have your utility deliver it to you.
- Fuel cells look to have a real advantage, in part because they can potentially obviate the need for backup generation and UPS in a data center. (And natural gas prices have never been lower in the US.)
- All of these thoughts relate to new builds. For existing data centers, invest in energy efficiency before you even think about self gen: you'll get superior results at far less risk.
I continue to watch the market to see if these axioms are holding true, and I think to a large extent they are. For example, Google buys wind power, Apple is installing large-scale solar, and Ebay is using fuel cells.
I did note this report from Data Center Dynamics of a 100 kW fuel cell installation at an Equinix colo in Germany, which is interesting because it looks like a "traditional" fuel cell, featuring a digester to turn natural gas into hydrogen, with the cell producing both power and heated water.
The fuel cell company, N2telligence (download English language brochure), makes some interesting claims that frankly puzzle me. For example, they say the fuel cell uses oxygen (yes, anything that oxidizes fuel uses oxygen) so can draw down the O2 content in the data center to support fire suppression. Hmmm?
They also say that other fuel cell technology emits nitrogen (no more than was in the natural gas and air that runs through the reaction, just like theirs...) and that their system produces more environmentally favorable water. Again. Hmmmm?
Despite those questions, all due props to Equinix for the trial. Colo providers have only very gingerly dipped their toes into the self gen pool, so this is a leadership move on their part. Do tell us how it goes!