Microsoft is testing hydrogen fuel cells as backup power in its data centers, but could these batteries boost clean energy savings in the lo...
Microsoft is testing hydrogen fuel cells as backup power in its data centers, but could these batteries boost clean energy savings in the long term?
Last January, Microsoft, one of the major players in the cloud, took its responsibilities by announcing a close-up on the new decade. The company is committed to erasing its carbon footprint by 2030 and to eliminating from 2030 to 2050 as much carbon as it has emitted in its history. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly becoming a key objective for technology companies. The electricity consumption of these companies represents a large source of carbon emissions in nature. However, they now intend to adopt sound energy practices by exploiting 100% renewable energy sources. Companies like Apple have been boasting about being carbon neutral for a few years now, but Microsoft's idea goes further and spans several decades.
Last Monday, Microsoft announced in a blog post that hydrogen fuel cells powered an array of servers in one of its data centres for 48 consecutive hours, a first that could kick-start a long-term clean energy economy built around the most abundant element in the universe. The company announces that this achievement is the latest step in the company's commitment to be carbon-negative by 2030. To help achieve this goal and accelerate the global transition away from fossil fuels, Microsoft also aims to eliminate its reliance on diesel by 2030.
Microsoft states that diesel fuel accounts for less than 1% of the company's overall emissions. Its use is primarily limited to Azure data centers, where, as with most cloud providers around the world, diesel generators support continuous operations in the event of power outages and other service interruptions. "They are expensive. And they don't do anything for more than 99 percent of their lives," said Mark Monroe, a senior infrastructure engineer on Microsoft's Advanced Data Center Development team.
In recent years, the costs of hydrogen fuel cells have fallen to the point where they have become an economically viable alternative to diesel-powered backup generators. "And the idea of running them on green hydrogen fits perfectly with our overall carbon commitments," Monroe said. In addition, he added, an Azure data center equipped with fuel cells, a hydrogen storage tank and an electrolyzer that converts water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen could be integrated into the power grid to provide load-balancing services.
"All of this infrastructure represents an opportunity for Microsoft to play a role in what will surely be a more dynamic global energy optimization framework that the world will deploy in the years to come," said Lucas Joppa , chief environmental officer at Microsoft. To further explore how Microsoft can leverage its investment in hydrogen fuel cells and related infrastructure, the company has appointed Joppa as its representative on the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative of leading energy, transportation and industrial companies to stimulate the hydrogen economy.
Jpppa said scientists have already proven that hydrogen fuel cells can be used to generate greenhouse gas-free energy from the most abundant element in the universe. He says:
"We know how to do it. The council exists because we don't necessarily know how to scale up hydrogen production, hydrogen transportation, hydrogen supply and then hydrogen consumption in different ways. There's still a lot of work to be done,"
Microsoft strives to provide Azure data centre customers with "five-nine" service availability, which means the data centre is up and running 99.999 per cent of the time. Backup generators are on during power outages and other service interruptions. "We don't use diesel generators a lot," said Monroe.
"We start them once a month to make sure they're working and do a load test once a year to make sure we can transfer the load to them properly, but on average they cover a power outage less than once a year.
According to Brian Janous, general manager of Microsoft's Data Center Energy and Sustainability Strategy Team, Microsoft is looking for diesel replacement technologies that would maintain or improve service availability and sees promise in hydrogen fuel cells and batteries. "The work the team is doing today is really trying to assess the feasibility of different solutions," he said.
Batteries already provide short-term backup power, bridging the 30-second gap between a grid failure and the time it takes to power diesel generators. More advanced batteries have longer durations. As a reminder, the seeds of using hydrogen fuel cells for backup power were planted in the spring of 2018, when researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, powered a rack of computers with a Proton Exchange Membrane, or PEM, hydrogen fuel cell. Monroe and his colleagues were on hand for the demonstration.