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Will hydrogen revolutionize DC power?

Thu 26 Aug 2021

Power in the data centre is an ever-present concern not just for owner-operators, but also for colocation customers, equipment manufacturers, the towns and cities whose electrical grids are used by these facilities. The issues with power in the data centre that bring these various stakeholders together include:

Consumption

First, data centres are enormous consumers of power. The servers and processors that form the basis for data centre services require large amounts of energy to run – and the cooling systems that keep equipment from overheating use even more. Additional power is required to run communications lines, front-end offices, etc.

Global data centre power consumption is around 416 terawatts annually – three percent of total electricity consumption worldwide. Data centres alone utilize 40 percent more power than the entire UK every year.

Backups

Because data centres promise uninterrupted services in their SLAs, a reliable backup power system must be provided as well. This ensures that even if the primary power grid fails due to unforeseen circumstances the data centre itself will continue operations.

Most data centres utilize diesel generators as backup power systems. This is an issue because diesel generators release pollutants and particulates into the atmosphere, including carbon and nitrous oxides.

Impact

Because data centres are large consumers of power, they can have a significant impact on the environment.

To help manage the environmental impact of the data centre, many owners/operators, equipment manufacturers, and consumers have begun to explore different methods of providing power to these facilities. Some have focused on innovative methods of lowering the overall power consumption by rethinking floor plans, white space, and design while others have looked to more efficient equipment and workload management systems.

Other efforts have been directed toward cooling systems. Some have looked at putting data centres in colder physical locations: cycling in cold air from outdoors to reduce the burden on HVAC systems. Microsoft even demonstrated the proof of concept of a workable underwater data centre, which is being put to commercial use in China this year.

Growth

Even before the pandemic, the digital world was growing at an exponential pace. Then, as work-from-home and shelter-in-place edicts were formed, many aspects of people’s regular lives became dependent on online services. Suddenly, people’s jobs, social lives, even visits to the doctor were managed by video call and messaging services in a way that hadn’t been widely accepted previously.

This led to an explosion in demand for digital services and in turn, for data centre services. New construction of data centres is expected to pass $39B USD by the end of 2026, with many new projects located in previously underserved markets, in more rural areas with even less infrastructure to support the demands of the data centre.

Data centres are increasingly facing challenges from the communities where they are located, as regulators managing power grids become more concerned with how data centre power consumption affects grid capacity.

Read more: Grid Reliability: Powering Change in the Data Centre

In response, key stakeholders throughout the data centre industry have been exploring new power sources for the data centre. One source that is gaining traction is hydrogen.

Hydrogen in the data centre

Recent developments in hydrogen fuel cells have focused on providing alternative backup power. Earlier this year, engineers at Microsoft outlined the issue noting that to date, diesel generators were required for data centres to meet ‘five-nines’ of availability: meaning that they had promised customers 99.999% uptime in their SLAs. “But no-one in the industry really likes diesel generators because they are noisy, they pollute and they produce, not just carbon, but also particulates, including nitrous oxides. And they’re getting more and more difficult to permit at the levels that some hyperscale companies are moving.”

Read more: Hydrogen: Fueling Innovation in the Data Centre

Hydrogen fuel cells are attractive as backup power systems, as they can be used to replace diesel generators directly without requiring a complete overhaul of the data centre electrical systems. In this way, diesel generators can be replaced using a phased approach with minimal disruption to operations – a major concern for owner/operators as well as customers and consumers. However, as the Microsoft team discovered, “The real opportunity … is when we start getting into generation two of this and say, well, ‘What would we do differently with the electrical system in a hyperscale data centre if we had reliable direct current non-polluting power available at the drop of a hat?’”

“I think you’d want to start looking at different architectures and, maybe, changing the whole way the electrical system works; [examining] how it might be reworked.”

Read more: Microsoft powers data centre servers with hydrogen fuel cells for 48 hours

While the potential for using hydrogen as backup power is being actively explored by many data centre providers, there are a select few that are putting research and development resources behind an all-hydrogen data centre today.

For example, ATOS and HDF Energy have announced a partnership to build a fully operational data centre completely hydrogen-powered by 2023. It is expected that the data centre will have a 1- MW capacity, with the goal of being totally independent of the local power grid. The concept, trade-named ‘Renewstable’, combines solar and wind power with an electrolyzer, which produces hydrogen. This hydrogen is stored, then consumed using a fuel cell to power the data centre.

Should this become a successful proof of concept, other data centre owners/operators may explore similar options for new builds, particularly in areas where infrastructure is underdeveloped and overtaxed, or in areas where they can form easy partnerships with hydrogen power providers. However, it appears that the industry is still far from overwhelming acceptance of hydrogen fuel for existing data centres, which would have to undergo expensive – and disruptive – retrofitting of power systems to accommodate the use of hydrogen.

While environmental initiatives are important to data centre providers, their primary purpose is to provide reliable, stable, and uninterrupted services to their clients. Widespread adoption of new technology like hydrogen power will be a huge undertaking, and while it is an interesting option for the data centre, there must be some advancement first in accommodating this level of large-scale change while minimizing disruption to existing services.

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power consumption power grid ups
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