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November 06, 2012

Is EBay's Use of Fuel Cells the Start Of a New Era?

A lot of data center operators are keeping an eye on eBay's Utah data center, in which it installed 6MW of fuel cell capacity. In the wake of major electrical outages in New York and New Jersey caused by Hurricane Sandy, there's new incentive for thinking about reliable on-site power generation. In Utah, perhaps eBay can help show if on-site power in general--and fuel cells in particular--have a strong future.

Model of what eBay's Utah data center will look like after expansion with second set of fuel cells (left)  

A recent article in GigaOm by Adam Lesser looked at the question of what Quicksilver, which uses Bloom Energy's fuel cells as the primary power source for the servers and the grid as a backup, means for the modern data center. While the headline and conclusion of the article say that installations like this one will be scrutinized “to see how the fuel cells perform and whether they could be part of a rethinking of how to provide backup power for the modern data center,” it doesn't really delve much into that issue. 

But it does share the highlights of Lesser's interview with Dean Nelson, the VP working on consolidating and equipping eBay's data centers. Nelson went through some of the reasons for choosing fuel cells for the site.

Justifying the fuel cells on economic grounds, however, does not seem to have been part of eBay's equation. The company simply has a goal to move toward clean energy. The problem with Utah is that less than 3% of its energy from renewable sources, while 82% comes from coal. So eBay had to consider on-site generation.

Nelson favors Bloom Energy's solid oxide fuel cells for their reliability. With thousands of redundancy points built into the design, if individual 25 watt fuel cells fail they won't cause an entire 200kW “brick” of cells to fail. The reliability might improve the site's uptime.

Nelson did cite potential cost savings as well. There are no UPS or backup generators at the site. That simplified the building design, allowing changes in the height of the building and amount of structural support needed. The gas grid, which feeds the fuel cells, is also more reliable than the electrical grid.

Although up-front costs are huge, and make it difficult to determine if it will pay off over the long haul, eBay decided to pay for the cells rather than use Bloom's offer to install the fuel cells then charge per kWh. Ebay gets a 20-year guarantee of minimal power generation and maintenance. In order to see if that approach is cost-effective, other companies will have to watch the site for many years.

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