Data centers are among the highest energy consuming places on the planet. In the United States they account for nearly 2% of electricity consumption and have orders of magnitude more energy consumption per square foot of space than traditional commercial settings.
Data centers also contain some of the most complicated networks of energy systems including wires and hardware.
Microsoft believes that fuel cells could help simply the complexity of power solutions used in data centers and also help reduce energy consumption for the industry.
The Slow Pace of Fast Change
It has been five years since Microsoft started its exploration into fuel cell powered data centers.
In 2013, Microsoft researchers working with NREL published a project thesis that ‘in-rack fuel cell’ powered data centers could deliver “benefits in reliability, capital and operational costs, and reduced environmental emissions.”
The big idea from Microsoft was to rethink the idea of ‘energy infrastructure’ and fuel cells to reduce the cost and complexity of legacy energy grid models.
Several years later, Microsoft continues the play in this integration.
In 2016, Microsoft teams proposed SizeCAP framework to help the data center community understand solutions to integration fuel cells into real world work loads, service level agreements, fuel delivery, et al.
In 2017, Microsoft announced the first ‘gas powered data center.’ Working with partners McKinsty and Cummins, the approach was to radically simplify the energy infrastructure by integrating natural gas powered fuel cells directly into server racks. This approach to direct (onsite) natural gas to electricity avoids energy losses during transmission from centralized power plants.
Possible Futures: Microsoft Rethinks the Energy Industry
The most likely future is the Microsoft simply uses fuel cells to reduce their data center costs.
A possible future is Microsoft’s understanding of fuel cell integration in high energy consuming devices, that the software company becomes a player in the energy sector in the late 2020s or early 2030s.
- Sean James’ blog post
- research paper: No More Electrical Infrastructure
- Seattle Times Reporting (2017)
- Bloomberg Reporting (2017)
- Navigant Energy Analysis (2017)
- HP Blog: How to create carbon free data centers (2018)
- HP Blog: HPE and NREL Partnership on Fuel cells in data centers (2018)
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