Fuel cells have been looming on the information technology horizon for ages and are considered a potential means of  energy efficiency. Data centers, power-hungry beasts that they are, keep increasing in popularity and presence. With the data center’s constant need for electricity, it was a perfect place for applying fuel cell technology.

Fuel cells have been touted for many years as the next generation of cost savers, and they have slowly been incorporated into products, mainly vehicles. As the cells’ efficiency is better understood, more uses have been invented, satisfying those seeking innovative ways to curb rising energy costs.

Finally, a mainstream fuel cell option has emerged to combat the growing data center energy needs.

The big and the small

Two main uses for fuel cells in the data center environment create an overall trend relating to the greening of data centers.

The first, which is a smaller-scale type of fuel cell inclusion, involves using them inside of the data center as an alternative to batteries and generators. Since fuel cells require hydrogen to operate, the hydrogen is stored outside the confines of the data center. It is piped in, allowing the fuel cell to operate. From an environmental standpoint, this solution helps remove lead and acid from the equation, two particularly damaging components.

The larger-scale fuel cell initiatives use the technology for entire facility power requirements. Companies such as Verizon and Fujitsu use fuel cell technology for powering needs at their facilities. Electrical power is derived, while water and heat are byproducts. Those that operate as stand-alone, whole-facility energy producers use natural gas as the main feed for the fuel cells. Natural gas is a relatively clean choice, and the ability to harness the byproducts into heating and cooling for the facility further add to the appeal and usefulness.

This works well for data centers, since these facilities require both heating and cooling for daily operations. In addition, the solution seems like a win-win situation for those who can afford to go such a route.

The high cost associated with the initial installation proves to be the biggest barrier to widespread adoption. While the re-turn on investment holds promise—the solution pays for itself in a few years—not every company is able to finance that initial capital investment.

While fuel cell technology has garnered the most praise for usage in automobiles, that was just the tip of the iceberg. It could be the easiest introduction to the public, as most consumers are familiar with vehicles and the energy they consume. By translating the fuel cell theory to large-scale energy consumers, such as buildings and data centers, many now understand that it is a viable energy alternative.

Fuel cells are slowly moving to the front of acceptable energy producers. The fact that they are efficient and environmentally friendly seems to only add to the cells’ overall appeal. So, it is only a matter of time until more contractors come across projects that include fuel cell technology in some form.

Keeping contractors in the total facility loop means that they need to stay abreast of such trends, even the ones that do not seem to directly affect them. Fuel cells could fit into this category, but they play into and with the systems that contractors routinely install and maintain, so it is important to stay current on what fuel cell technology can and cannot do. Contractors should look into how the industry has changed and into some real-world success stories involving fuel cell technology.

Understanding the benefits of fuel cell technology may take time. Learning those situations in which fuel cells best perform may take even more time. But, as end-users constantly strive toward heightened energy efficiency and reduced operating expenses, many have started looking at new ways of operating their facilities. Contractors who take the time and initiative to become well versed and trained in such options could find themselves even more in demand, which is always a good thing.    EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.