The Seattle Times reported late last month that Microsoft with the support of a program funded by Washington state, is testing natural gas-powered fuel cells, technology that could allow future data centers to unplug from the power grid. Data centers consume 2% of electricity in the U.S., a 0.8% increase from 2000. Greater Seattle and Washington State are well positioned to innovate in this area. The state is a leader in providing low-cost electricity and is home to over 2000 companies actively involved in providing clean tech solutions. The clean energy sector currently employs over 58,000 workers and adds $17 billion to the state’s economy.
As the demand for more data centers increases, global companies like Microsoft are seeking new designs that eliminate the inefficiency of producing electricity at a distant power plant, cut costs, and reduce carbon emission that fuel global warming.
Currently, data centers require a significant amount of equipment to function properly: generators, batteries, transformers, and electric cables. Christian Belady, a data center engineer, hopes that Microsoft’s fuel cell technology will replace the need for traditional data centers. Mass produced fuel cells could potentially decrease installment costs of new data centers by 10% and operating costs by 21%.
The concept of the fuel cell took many years of research and experimentation. Data center engineers hope that the company’s Redmond campus would have large batteries to let its centers unplug from the power grids during the day and re-charge at night when the use of electricity decreases. The $3.4 million project is partially funded by a Washington state program that advocates for clean energy technology development. Microsoft will test the concept after city approval in Seattle’s Sodo District.