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Big Tech Looks To Hydrogen For Backup Generation At Data Centers

Big Tech Looks To Hydrogen For Backup Generation At Data Centers

By: Isabelle Branco-Lo

California’s grid reliability issues, caused by aging infrastructure, have been exacerbated by catastrophic wildfires in recent years. As a result, backup generation has been an increasingly important consideration for utilities, private companies, and regulators alike. Diesel generators are the most common source of backup power in California, however, in January, 2021, the California Energy Commission hosted a workshop where stakeholders revealed they are considering alternatives like hydrogen to replace diesel fuel for backup power.

Silicon Valley Takes Note

Some of the largest commercial and industrial customers in California interested in alternative fuel for backup generation are in Silicon Valley. Data centers account for about 20 GW of diesel generators deployed globally. As some of the biggest tech companies make carbon neutral and carbon negative pledges, backup power will need to come from sources other than fossil fuels.

In July 2020, Microsoft
MSFT
tested hydrogen fuel cells for backup power at its data centers. This move aligns with its commitment to be carbon negative by 2030 and eliminate dependency on diesel fuel by 2030. While still in the exploratory stages of using fuel cells as backup generators, the company hopes to scale the 250 kW system to a 3 MW system, which is equivalent to diesel-powered generators currently at its data centers.

While Google has announced its plans to test batteries for backup, the key draw of hydrogen is its cost-effectiveness at longer durations. When comparing levelized costs for a completely resilient, 100% renewable data center with zero emissions, hydrogen is $119/MWh, while batteries could be over $4,000/MWh to ensure 48 hours of backup power. This finding comes from Jack Brouwer, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

Hydrogen Can Power Decarbonization with Multiple Applications

The use cases for hydrogen at data centers extend far beyond backup power. As more and more large tech companies strive to meet carbon neutral and carbon negative emissions goals with onsite power generation, green hydrogen could be created and used for storage and could provide load balancing services to the grid. Storing green hydrogen that has been created onsite by cheap renewable electricity could also be used to power fuel cell vehicles to provide emissions-free onsite transportation. Hydrogen’s versatility and efficiency may prove to be a valuable asset for data centers as they decarbonize in the coming years.

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