Why eBay is powering its Utah data center with fuel cells

In Utah, 94 percent of the energy produced comes from coal. That’s not the case at eBay’s (s ebay) data center, where fuel cells will use natural gas to power servers.

“The cost of electricity in Utah is low. It’s dirty and cheap. But that’s not what we want,” eBay vice president Dean Nelson said Thursday at the GigaOM Structure conference.

Instead of one large generator, 6 MW of smaller fuel cells will give the data center the flexibility to roll with unexpected power challenges. If one cell goes down, the facility loses a small amount of capacity instead of power altogether. The grid will function as a backup to the cells, and computers will consume energy 100 feet from where it’s generated.

“We’re challenging fundamentally how we’ve all done it for the last 30 years,” he said.

Bloom Energy vice president Peter Gross, who co-presented with Nelson, said natural gas has changed the power situation completely for data centers. They now have the ability to lock in energy costs for a period of 15 years. He said he was surprised by how rapidly the fuel cells were embraced by the data industry.

“We’ve been very public about this project because we do believe it starts the right dialogue,” Nelson said. “We’re proving this can be done this way.”

Check out the rest of our Structure 2013 coverage here, and a video embed of the session follows below:

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A transcription of the video follows on the next page