As it works to establish its fuel cells as a viable option to power data centers, Bloom Energy has received a huge vote of confidence from one of the industry’s largest players.
Equinix Inc., the world’s largest provider of colocation services, said today that it will install Bloom Energy Servers in 12 data centers in California, New York and Los Angeles. The move comes two years after began testing Bloom’s fuel cells at a data center in San Jose. By the time all the gas-fed fuel cells are installed in 2019, Equinix will be using more than 40 megawatts of Bloom equipment.
The move by Equinix reflects the evolution of data center power, as large operators consider new strategies to reduce their impact on the environment. The data center industry has emerged as a leading player in the market for renewable energy, as cloud computing platforms shift to solar and wind to power their servers. In 2016, data center providers signed contracts for more than 1.2 gigawatts of renewable power, and adoption is now extending to multi-tenant service providers, as colo customers advocate for green power.
That’s a key motivation for Equinix, which says the Bloom fuel cells will provide power that is 20 to 45 percent cleaner than the equivalent utility power backed by natural gas generation. The company estimates that using the Bloom Energy Servers will avoid 660,000 tons of carbon emissions over the lifetime of the project, as well as saving 87 billion gallons of water that would have been used by natural gas or coal-fired utility generation.
“This fuel cell expansion is one step in lessening the overall impact of the digital economy on the planet,” said Karl Strohmeyer, President, Americas for Equinix. “It enables us to serve our customers with the highest levels of performance while assisting their efforts to make their supply chain clean and efficient.”
Largest Data Center Install Yet
The deal marks something of a breakthrough for Sunnyvale-based Bloom Energy, whose “Bloom boxes” support mission-critical IT operations at data centers operated by eBay, Apple, CenturyLink, AT&T, Verizon and NTT America.
The Bloom Energy Server uses solid oxide fuel cell technology that converts fuel to electricity through an electro-chemical reaction, without any combustion. It can work with either natural gas or biofuels, such as biogas from landfills.
Bloom says that its on-site fuel cells offer “better electrons” by making more efficient use of fuel than coal-fired power plants, eliminating power loss during distribution, and sharply reducing emissions. The Bloom boxes offer a better carbon profile than most utility power, and can be used with renewable energy to create a carbon-neutral solution.
The Equinix announcement is a milestone in Bloom’s mission to transform how data centers are powered and equipped. The company is positioning its fuel cells as a tool to overhaul the traditional power architecture of mission-critical facilities, eliminating the need for expensive UPS systems and emergency backup generators.
“I honestly feel this is going to be the most disruptive technology to hit this industry in 20 years,” Peter Gross, Vice President of Mission Critical Systems for Bloom Energy, told us last year. “It’s the next big thing.”
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Rethinking Data Center Power
It’s a shift that requires a fundamental rethinking of the way data centers are powered, placing fuel cells in a prominent position in the power chain. That kind of change takes time in the data center industry, a risk-conscious business where engineers proceed cautiously in implementing any new technologies until they are widely tested. A key challenge for Bloom was to get its Energy Servers installed in enough data centers to provide that comfort level. In that respect, the embrace from Equinix is a big deal.
“There is no greater compliment and validation of our energy platform than to have our existing customers continue to expand their deployments of Bloom Energy Servers, and today, Equinix is doing that in a big way,” said KR Sridhar, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Bloom Energy.KR Sridhar: There is no greater validation of our platform than to have existing customers expand their deployments.Click To Tweet
In Dec. 2015 Data Center Frontier provided a first look at the Bloom installation at the Equinix SV5 data center, which includes uninterruptible power modules that are configured to protect a portion of the data center’s energy load from electrical outages.
The new project is structure as a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) between Equinix and a subsidiary of Southern Company, which will install fuel cells at seven Equinix IBX data centers in the Silicon Valley (SV1, SV2, SV3, SV4, SV5, SV6, SV10), three in the New York area (NY2, NY4, NY5) and two in the Los Angeles area (LA3, LA4).
Greening Its Colo Footprint
Equinix said the investment is a key milestone for its corporate sustainability program. Equinix has indicated that it plans to shift its entire global data center network to run on clean and renewable energy. It’s an ambitious goal, and will require years of work and a variety of new approaches to energy management. The company says it currently supports 56 percent of its requirements through renewable energy purchases, including PPAs for wind energy from Oklahoma and Texas, providing a total of 225 megawatts of capacity.
The project is financed through Southern Company and reflects a strategic partnership between Bloom Energy and Southern Company to support on-site fuel cell solutions. It reflects a growing movement for utilities and large data center providers to collaborate more effectively to to meet cloud builders’ demand for renewable energy.
“Our strategic partnership with Bloom Energy was established to deliver greater value for customers by providing innovative energy solutions directly on the customer premise,” said Tom Fanning, Chairman, President and CEO of Southern Company. “This project with Equinix further demonstrates that this approach is meeting the smart energy demands of today’s leading companies.”
Making the Economics Work for Fuel Cells
Bloom isn’t the only player seeking to build traction for fuel cells in data centers. Other approaches seek to harness a range of renewable fuel sources, while Microsoft has positioned fuel cells at the rack level to power servers. But Bloom has emerged as the market leader in mission-critical fuel cells, and looms as the best hope for establishing them as a standard component of data center infrastructure.
The broader adoption of Bloom in Equinix data centers illustrates the potential for fuel cells in data centers, but also some of the limitations. One of the primary barriers to adoption in data centers has been the cost of the fuel cells. The economics work best in markets where the cost of electricity is high and the price of natural gas is low, as reflected by Equinix’ decision to deploy its Bloom boxes in California and New York, markets where the cost of power is high. These are also locations where environmental regulations make it problematic to add diesel generators, the traditional source of emergency power for data centers.
The most effective way to make the economics work is by using Bloom boxes to eliminate other expensive equipment in the data center power chain. When you add Bloom Energy Servers but subtract the expense of UPS units and generators, the cost equation looks very different.
In 2012, eBay went all-in with the Bloom solution, installing 30 Bloom boxes to support a new phase of eBay’s “Project Quicksilver” data center in South Jordan, Utah.
In a traditional configuration, data centers use the utility grid for primary power, with UPS units and backup generators providing emergency power in the event of grid outages. At eBay, the Bloom Energy Servers provide primary power, with the utility grid serving as backup. High-density modular data centers are packed with dual-corded servers, with one input from the Bloom systems and the other from the grid.