eBay turns on first-of-its-kind fuel cell-powered data center

E-commerce giant eBay has switched on a data center in Utah that is primarily powered by thirty fuel cells — devices that turn fuel like natural gas into electricity through a chemical reaction. eBay’s new data center will use the local power grid only as backup power, and eBay says this architecture is not only an environmental step, but makes the data center more reliable and immune to grid blackouts.

In addition to eBay’s unprecedented use of fuel cells for a data center, the company has also invested in a project where clean power company Ormat will install technology at nearby natural gas pipelines (on the compressor stations) to capture the heat waste from these stations and turn it into electricity. eBay will use this electricity (5 MW of it) back at the data center, in a move which will help lower eBay’s overall carbon footprint.

eBay SLC Data Center_Bloom Energy ServersThis data center is the first of its kind in the world, and highlights how data center operators are looking to experiment with cleaner power sources as the growing number of data centers in the world suck up ever more energy resources. eBay’s use of the grid as a backup only, also shows how data centers want to see how they can become independent from the grid, which can experience black outs of of their control.

eBay has been talking about this unusual data center for awhile, including at our Structure conference in San Francisco this Summer. But now the data center is finally live, so many transactions done on eBay and PayPal will be a little bit greener. The data center lit up this week is the second phase of the Topaz data center that eBay turned on in Utah a couple years ago.

eBay SLC Data Center_Bloom Energy Servers 2Other tiny modular data centers can dock into the Utah site, and the facility is just getting the computing installed in it. Over the next few months and years eBay will add more hardware to the site and potentially add more fuel cells to power that hardware draw, too.

The fuel cells for the data center were provided by Valley startup Bloom Energy, and eBay’s Dean Nelson tells me in an interview that eBay and Bloom Energy have spent several months developing ways to make the fuel cell architecture resilient enough to run a data center 24/7. Unlike at a home or even office building, where if there’s a power failure it’s just a significant inconvenience, data centers need to stay up at all times to keep websites running, and any down time can lead to a lot of money lost.

eBay SLC Data Center 3Bloom Energy has sold fuel cells for data centers developed by Apple, Verizon, AT&T, NTT and others. The over-a-decade-old company has found a sizable market by helping Internet brands that run data centers reduce their overall carbon footprints and rethink power and the data center. Bloom is backed by investors including NEA, Kleiner Perkins, DAG Ventures, and GSV Capital. The company has raised over $1.1 billion.

eBay was originally hoping to use biogas — gas from organic waste — which is recycled and which is also carbon emissions free — but Nelson explained that sourcing biogas (from water waste treatment plants, ¬†landfills or animal farms) in the state was just too difficult (read what you need to know about data centers and biogas). Instead of biogas, eBay is using natural gas to power the fuel cells and is offsetting the associated carbon emissions with the waste heat recovery project, which will operate around 20 miles from the data center.

The new phase of eBay’s Utah data center is “four times denser and half the cost,” of the first phase, said Nelson. Before eBay adds more hardware to the facility, the fuel cells will provide enough power to also have power Topaz, too.