There is an strong debate about the sustainability of data centers. Energy consumption is a key consideration, but at the same time the demand for data center services is increasing. The growth required for this can only be achieved in a sustainable way by looking at alternative forms of energy. The European data center sector has agreed to achieve entirely climate-neutral operations by 2030. Hydrogen cells are a promising technology to achieve this goal.
Emergency power facilities
Data centers usually have several emergency power generators that run on diesel to guarantee the availability of the digital services on which our society depends in the event of a power failure. Although these diesel generators are rarely actually needed, they should be checked regularly – on a monthly basis – to ensure that they are working correctly. This process results in the consumption of diesel fuel and, with the large number of emergency power generators in all data centers in our country, that represents a considerable amount of diesel.
The 500 KW hydrogen cell module that will be installed in the new NorthC data center in Groningen will save tens of thousands of liters of diesel on an annual basis. Burning this amount of diesel would produce more than 78,000 kilograms (78 tons) of CO2. That is equal to 24 cars driving the average number of kilometers for Dutch people (32 km per day) for a year, or 20,000 smartphones being charged every day for a year. Only water (H2O) is released when green hydrogen is burned. Additional hydrogen modules can be added as needed.
“The data center industry has a responsibility to ensure that we operate as sustainably as possible. For example, all our regional data centers run entirely on green power. We are also actively engaged in additional sustainability initiatives, such as projects that use the residual heat from our data centers to heat homes and businesses in the area. An important next step is to switch from emergency power generators that run on diesel to sustainable alternatives. We believe that green hydrogen offers the best possibilities in this respect and have therefore entered into a partnership with Nedstack – one of the frontrunners in the field of large hydrogen cells”, says Jarno Bloem, COO at NorthC Datacenters.
Service life: 20 years or more
The hydrogen cells that will be installed in the Groningen data center are more expensive than traditional generators that run on diesel. However, the costs are expected to fall rapidly because of rapidly increasing fuel prices and the further development and growth of the hydrogen sector – particularly in the Groningen region. Additionally, the hydrogen cells have a very long service life of 20 years or more. For existing generators that run on diesel, NorthC is investigating whether it is possible and cost-effective to make them suitable for hydrogen. While this is less efficient than hydrogen fuel cells, which convert H2 directly into electrical energy, it would significantly reduce emissions by more than 80% and further contribute to sustainability.
‘With these hydrogen cells, our data center in Groningen has a European first for emergency power supplies. We are now going to investigate if we can also apply this technology in our other data centers, initially mainly in new branches or expansions of existing branches. The ultimate goal, of course, is to use green hydrogen as a primary power supply, but that is still something to address in the future. An important condition is a drop in the costs of hydrogen. This requires subsidies and an increase in scale. But given the enormous advantages that this form of energy offers, I am convinced that it is just a matter of time,’ Bloem concludes.
The hydrogen cells in Groningen are expected to be operational by the middle of June.