Bloom exec: Fuel cells could revolutionize data centers

Fuel cells could revolutionize data center power architecture — at least, according to Bloom Energy’s new data center guru, Peter Gross, who joined the company this week as the Vice President of Mission Critical Systems. Gross, who co-founded data center design firm EYP Mission Critical Facilities and sold it to Hewlett-Packard in 2007, told me in an interview on Wednesday that Bloom Energy plans to sell its fuel cells to data center operators as a replacement for both backup power systems and grid power.
Fuel cells are essentially a box that creates a chemical reaction to produce electricity and heat. Fuel cells are filled with large filter-like stacks that are lined with catalysts (a metal, sometimes platinum), and a fuel (commonly natural gas) is pumped over the stack, creating a reaction and producing electricity and heat. Fuel cells produce fewer carbon emissions compared to coal powered grid energy. Bloom Energy is a venture capital-backed Silicon Valley company that has developed a more efficient fuel cell, which it is looking to sell to utilities, data center operators and companies for corporate campuses.
A couple of years ago the idea of combining fuel cells and data centers seemed like a long shot. For decades, fuel cells have been a more expensive way of generating power, and the technology hadn’t been reliable enough to act as a “mission critical” system with a high degree of reliability. Backup power systems — data center operators commonly use generators and batteries as backup power for when the grid goes down — can’t afford to go down in an emergency.
But Gross tells me that Bloom has been working on making the fuel cell and the fuel cell power system itself highly reliable — reliable enough to act as both mission critical backup power and to contribute to primary grid power. In combination with the grid, fuel cell power could create one of the most robust systems available, says Gross.

Bloom Energy's launch event

Gross says that it’s the combination of reliability, sustainability and cost (in certain areas with high energy costs) that could lead to fuel cells being readily adopted by data center operators. “It could be a radical change for how data centers use electricity,” replacing other backup systems and also replacing a portion of dirtier grid power, said Gross.
Bloom has already sold fuel cells to telcos NTT America and AT&T, partly for their data centers, and I reported recently that it looks like Apple will be buying fuel cells from Bloom for its large fuel cell farm at its massive data center in North Carolina. Other fuel cell makers like ClearEdge Power are also targeting data center operators.
To be sure, Bloom Energy is just launching this data center-targeted focus, so it remains to be seen how popular it will be with data center operators. But, at least for Bloom, it could be a smart move. Slow moving, highly regulated utilities seem to be harder customers to sell to in contrast with forward-thinking Internet companies.