eBay commits to fuel-cell power for datacenter growth

Fuel cells come center stage in new eBay datacenter project
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

eBay announced today that the latest expansion of their primary datacenter would be relying on renewable power from Bloom Energy fuel cells. This will be the first major datacenter project that will rely on Bloom Energy's fuel scell design.  Bloom's previous high-profile tech sector installation was with Google, but in that case, Google is using the fuel cells to power offices not their datacenters.

eBay will be installing 30 Bloom Energy servers, each capable of generating 175,000,000 kilowatt hours of energy annually, to meet the expected need of close to six-megawatts that the datacenter will require.  The fuel cells will use biogas as their fuel source, which is a proven staple for renewable energy, generated from waste and landfills all over the country. Backup power will be provided via connections to the standard utility grid.

In a twist from the way that datacenter power is usually modeled, the Bloom Energy cells will be replacing the traditional backup generator and UPS battery complexes that can be found in every existing datacenter. According to eBay, the fuel cells will be installed in such a way that there is little to no chance of simultaneous failure that would completely shut down their energy production, allowing for a real-time transition to the public utility grid backup power. This means that the cost of the Bloom energy servers can be partially offset by what would normally be budgeted for the purchase and installation of large backup generator systems and UPS systems, as well as the preventative replacement of batteries for battery backup power.

Bloom Energy has been in business for only a few years, and at the beginning of 2011 announced that they had installed 200 energy servers to date, meaning that regardless of their growth in the last year, a single site of 30 fuel cells is their largest single sale and project. eBay has acknowledged that they are pushing the boundaries on datacenter power systems with this commitment to the fuel cell power and are aware that this represents a new level of commitment for Bloom Energy servers.

In a lot of ways, this installation will be the make or break test of fuel cells as a power source. Long-term success (in technology terms that means a year or two) means that Bloom, and any potential competitors in the fuel cell business, will have a flagship project to point to in future dealings.  Setbacks oer even minor failures could easily kill the nascent fuel cell energy source business, at least in the near term.

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