Fuel cell technology has been gradually getting greater acceptance in the datacenter world. Getting end-to-end control of the power production aspect of datacenter energy requirements allows a business to more carefully control expenses and model future spending more accurately. But fuel cells, due to the nature of their production, are inherently expensive, which makes considerations o their use limited to only companies with significant budget for datacenter energy cost capital expenditures.
In the white paper “No More Electrical Infrastructure: Towards Fuel Cell Powered Data Centers” Microsoft Research examines the potential cost savings of using fuel cells to power datacenters. While that may seem like an oxymoron, based on the clear issues of fuel cell costs, Microsoft makes a clear case for the economics of scale in the production of fuel cells on a level not currently contemplated.
They do this by postulating the development of the rack-level fuel cell. In this model, rather than supplying an entire datacenter with power, the goal is to deliver power to a single rack. The Microsoft model postulates that doubling production volume would reduce the costs by 20 percent. For the small fuel cell that would be used in a rack system, their analysis used a cost of $3-5/W and a service life of 5 years.
While the expenses for IT equipment and datacenter cooling are not directly affected by using this type of power generation, the impact on the overall design and powering of the datacenter is significant. In any datacenter infrastructure, design concerns for the power distribution network are significant. With fuel cells, the issues of the local power distribution grid no longer apply. While the system is tied into the delivery of natural gas, that delivery system is much more reliable than the electrical delivery system in general. Failures in the natural gas delivery system from public utilities are very rare.
It also means there is no need for power distribution units within the datacenter to deliver power to the racks. This is a significant CAPEX reduction in itself and with the ongoing OPEX reduction (natural gas is currently significantly cheaper than electricity) Based on a number of factors that include location sensitive prices for electricity, the paper sees the potential for, at minimum, 16-20 percent savings in CAPEX and 4 percent in OPEX. Savings like these should make fuel cells a definite consideration in the development of future datacenters.