Data Centers Eye 'Green' Power

Users exploring energy alternatives such as fuel cells and flywheels

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Joseph Weller, manager of computer operations at Delta Dental of Michigan, just purchased a hydrogen fuel cell car kit for his 10-year-old grandson's birthday. "I thought it was kind of cool," he said between sessions at the AFCOM data center conference here. But Weller said he has a professional interest in the toy's energy system, too.

"We have to find alternative means of power -- we can't rely on current technology" forever, said Weller, noting that if the fuel cell can move a 12-inch toy car, the technology may be able to power computer facilities someday. Delta, an Okemos-based insurer, has some 5.5 million members.

There's growing interest in "green" power technologies, even though IT managers at the conference said they don't expect to see fuel cells arriving in their data centers anytime soon because of the technology's immaturity and cost. But efforts are under way to figure out how best to power data centers with alternative fuels.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health are exploring whether fuel cell technology can be used to power the NIH's computer facilities, said Paul Powell, data center manager at the Bethesda, Md.-based federal agency. Powell said he's interested in fuel cells but finds it difficult to believe that they can power his data centers.

"As a data center manager, I have concerns. It's going to take up an awful lot of space," he said.

Generators Cheaper

American Power Conversion Corp. introduced fuel cells for data centers last year. But a fuel cell system costs about 10 times more than a generator, and early adopters have either been located in high-rise buildings where generators aren't an option or used in situations requiring portable energy supplies.

Fuel cells rely on hydrogen and chemical reactions to produce energy, leaving water as a by-product. APC's fuel cell technology can produce up to 30 kilowatts of electricity -- enough to power some large blade servers -- for about 10 minutes from one hydrogen tank, which is typically the size of a welder's tank.

That's where Powell's concern about size comes in. He said he might need a separate building just to house the fuel cells and tanks required to power his two data centers, which together use 1 megawatt of energy each month.

Brian Cihak, a network and data center engineer at BFS Retail & Commercial Operations LLC in Bloomingdale, Ill., said fuel cell technology hasn't "quite reached the maturity that's needed yet, but it's certainly well on its way."

Another power technology getting attention is the flywheel, offered by companies such as Pentadyne Power Corp. in Chatsworth, Calif., and Active Power Inc. in Austin. If power is interrupted, spinning flywheels can provide power for up to 30 seconds, in lieu of batteries.

James Montanio, a systems administrator at the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, said the flywheel technology he uses works fine, with the added benefit that there's no need for batteries.


Fuel Cells 101

How they work: A fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen to create an electrochemical process to produce electric energy. The by-product is water.

Cost: Fuel cells cost about $4,500 per kilowatt, whereas a diesel generator costs $800 to $1,500 per kilowatt, according to the Department of Energy.

Future: The goal is to cut that cost to $400 per kilowatt or less by the end of the decade through mass production, the DOE said.

APC’s fuel cell system operates on hydrogen fuel and can produce up to 30kW.

William Hobbib, StreamBases vice president of marketing

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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