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Sweden supports hydrogen backup power trend for data centers

18 May 2022 Cristina Brooks

Swedish state-owned utility Vattenfall switched on the country's first hydrogen-fueled backup power generation for data centers, part of a growing trend for the use of hydrogen.

Companies like Facebook choose to base their data centers in cool climates to reduce their server energy cooling costs, according to a blog by US data center operator Netrality.

The backup power generation project financed by the Swedish government's telecommunications authority aims to improve energy reliability for data centers in such climates.

The fuel cell system uses green hydrogen for prolonged periods and will work even in bitter minus 40 degrees Celsius conditions, according to a 13 May statement.

For the backup generation system, Canada-based Ballard supplied the hydrogen-powered fuel cell that produces electricity as needed, for example when a power outage occurs.

The fuel cell may be able to run for longer than the diesel and battery generation it replaced. "This means that telecom operations can be maintained both sustainably and for a long time, even in areas that are difficult to access when there's an outage in the regular power supply," Vattenfall Network Solutions Business Developer Patrik Appelgren said in the statement.

Public fiber-optic network operator IT Norrbotten is facing demand for increasing sustainability, said Vattenfall.

Vattenfall provides data center electrification services in the Nordic region and elsewhere in Europe, partnering with German data center operator Cloud&Heat to offer sustainable computing services last December.

Data centers require not only uninterrupted power, but also secondary backup generation sources to ensure the availability of digital services in the event of a power failure.

They usually have several emergency power generators that run on diesel, according to Dutch data center operator NorthC.

Monthly testing of diesel generators for maintenance of a system requires a "considerable amount" of diesel and emits 78 metric tons of CO2 annually, it said.

Data centers are major users of power, which makes up 40%-60% of data centers' operating costs, according to UK research consultancy Energy Aspects.

The International Energy Agency says that data centers made up 1% of global final energy demand in 2020. They will contribute 4.5% to global electricity demand by 2025, increasing their associated emissions, according to a 2017 Huawei Technologies study.

EU-backed data center targets

While hydrogen-powered data centers have been proposed in Singapore and the US, they can be used to comply with industry self-governance in Europe.

In Europe, an initiative by operators pledging to bring data centers into alignment with net-zero is being monitored by the EU's executive body, the European Commission (EC).

Signatories to the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact include Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Deutsche Telekom digital services arm T-Systems.

Through the initiative, signatories commit to doing their part to reach the EU's 2050 carbon neutrality target, meant to enforce its Paris Agreement pledge and set to be enacted through the Fit for 55 package of decarbonization policies.

"[The] pledge from important parts of the data industry constitutes a promise to society and offers a welcome first step towards achieving our common ambitions for a smart and sustainable future," said EC Vice President Frans Timmermans.

Under the pact, operators and trade associations agree to meet so-called power use effectiveness goals. They must also reach their target of powering operations entirely through renewable or carbon-free energy, for example hydrogen, by 2031.

The EC also nudged the signatories to create a new data center efficiency metric that they are mulling for use in a 2030 target.

Google said in 2018 that it wasn't possible to power all its data centers and offices with 100% renewable energy, and so it decided to fund new renewable projects with procurement contracts to "match" the carbon-emitting electricity used for its facilities.

Another sector giant, Amazon has sourced renewable energy to run its data centers. Last December, the company announced it had procured energy from 18 new wind and solar projects in the US and Europe to supply Amazon Web Services' data centers and other facilities.

Shoring up renewable energy supplies for data centers, Vattenfall provides matching supplies of renewable energy to Swedish data center company Conapto, a signatory.

Hydrogen powers data centers in Europe, US

Microsoft in 2020 said it achieved a first in the use of hydrogen to power data centers when it powered data center servers for two days.

Microsoft continues to push for progress in this area. Last November, Caterpillar Electric Power demonstrated a hydrogen fuel cell at a Microsoft data center in the US city of Quincy, according to Ballard. The project was partly funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Data centers in the US primarily use diesel generators for backup power and electricity from the grid for prime power, found DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

While hydrogen fuel cell use is a way to reduce emissions, there is not enough hydrogen currently available, as a hyperscale data center would require 30 metric tons of hydrogen per day, said NREL.

In Europe, NorthC switched a diesel generator at its facility in Groningen, the Netherlands, out for a hydrogen fuel cell in February. It said this was the first such project on the continent and was mulling the technology for its other data centers.

Another European pilot aims to develop fuel cells not as the backup generation, but rather as the primary power source for data centers in populated areas, the Eco Edge Prime Power project.

One of its goals is to increase the power capacity of fuel cells, which has remained low since their debut over a century ago.

The project was funded by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking, a partnership between the European Union, member states, and industry players testing technologies to meet the aims of the EU's 2020 Hydrogen Strategy.

Europe's green hydrogen sector is expected to receive a boost from forthcoming REPowerEU legislation after the publication of a related legislative proposal (18 May) that foresees a quadrupling of the EU's green hydrogen production target to 10 million metric tons by 2030.

It is aiming to use the fuel to help break the EU's natural gas dependency on Russia.

Posted 18 May 2022 by Cristina Brooks, Senior Journalist, Climate and Sustainability

This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.


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