eBay Waves the Green Flag With Huge Fuel Cell Data Center

Online commerce giant eBay on Thursday announced that it will expand its flagship data center in Utah and use renewable energy to power the addition.

This expansion will use 30 Bloom Energy fuel cells and will be the largest non-utility fuel cell installation in the United States.

The fuel cells will be the primary source of energy for the facility — the electric utility grid will only be used as backup.

“We intend to shape a future for commerce that is more sustainable at its core,” Dean Nelson, eBay’s vice president of global foundation services, told TechNewsWorld.

“Through this project, we are enabling every transaction that goes through our Utah data center to be clean,” he added.

“The only end products from a fuel cell electricity production process are the electricity, water and some heat,” John Rogers, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), told TechNewsWorld. “If the fuel cell’s source is from a sustainable source, then it can be a very attractive option from an environmental perspective.”

Let a Thousand Fuel Cells Bloom

The Bloom installation in eBay’s data center expansion in Utah will generate 6 MW of electricity a year. Each of the 30 Bloom Energy servers will generate 1.75 million kWh of electricity annually. The fuel servers will be installed a few hundred feet from the data center, which will eliminate the power losses experienced when electricity travels across long distances, as it does on the power grid.

The data center expansion will power millions of transactions by eBay’s more than 102 million active users. It will also power activity across eBay’s other global commerce platforms, including PayPal and StubHub.

eBay will use the Bloom fuel cells, which generate on-site power at 24/7/365, to replace its backup generators and UPS components, which are historically utilized less than 1 percent of the year, the company said. The Bloom Energy servers will be powered by biogas.

It’s a Gas

Biogas, or methane, is produced by biomass. Sources of biomass include landfills, pulp and paper mills, schools and hospitals.

However, it costs more to produce biogas from biomass than to use natural gas, and most methane is burned off. Further, methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a half-life of seven years in the atmosphere, and it’s highly flammable.

The cost of building the infrastructure, including the pipelines, might be high, and “it’s best to be adjacent to, say, a landfill, where there’s a good source of methane,” Tom Kerber, a director of research at Parks Associates, told TechNewsWorld.

Biomass power is only one of several types of renewable energy systems. A list of various systems can be seen here.

eBay’s Wearing of the Green

The Bloom Energy project will be eBay’s fifth and largest renewable energy installation. The company already operates a 650 kW solar array and a 500 kW Bloom fuel cell installation at its headquarters in San Jose and a 100 kW solar array at its data center in Denver. In April, eBay installed a 665 kW solar array spanning 72,000 square feet on top of its existing Utah data center, which is LEED certified.

The San Jose campus solar installation, installed back in 2008, spans 60,000 square feet and sits atop multiple buildings at eBay’s North Campus. It consists of more than 3,200 solar panels and supplies 18 percent of the campus’ power requirements. It saved eBay about $100,000 in its first year of operation.

“Our hope is that, at scale, we can enable every transaction that goes through every data center to be clean,” eBay’s Nelson stated.

“Every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from renewable energy can displace a kilowatt-hour of power from unsustainable sources such as coal,” the UCS’s Rogers said.

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You

The Bloom Energy servers are expensive, and reportedly cost between US$700,000 and $800,000 apiece. So why not go with solar panels, which eBay has used successfully so far?

“Solar is great, but its output maxes out at around 18 percent generation because sunlight is only available some of the time,” eBay’s Nelson said. “The Bloom installation provides base-load power 24/7/365. It’s more a matter of continual, reliable power and less a matter of efficiency.”

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