Microsoft has a brand new weapon for killing off diesel at its increasing world fleet of information facilities: inexperienced hydrogen.

The tech big introduced Monday that it lately powered a row of information heart servers for 48 hours utilizing nothing however hydrogen gas cells, which it believes to be the longest such take a look at on this planet for a knowledge heart operator at that scale.

Microsoft is increasing its hydrogen testing and intends to leverage its huge dimension and vitality consumption to assist the inexperienced hydrogen trade scale up, Brian Janous, the corporate’s normal supervisor for environmental sustainability, stated in an interview.

Inexperienced hydrogen might in the future play an analogous function as batteries for Microsoft, Janous stated, holding knowledge facilities on-line and working easily amid a rising tide of intermittent renewables or in elements of the world the place the electrical grid is unreliable.

And there’s potential to go even additional: Quite than merely consuming hydrogen to energy its knowledge facilities, Microsoft might set up electrolyzers and storage tanks onsite to provide and stockpile inexperienced hydrogen — integrating with the grid to supply load-balancing companies, and even performing as a filling station for hydrogen-powered long-haul automobiles within the space.

Microsoft is already experimenting with utilizing its onsite batteries to promote companies to the grid. “We see hydrogen creating the identical type of alternative,” Janous stated.

Inexperienced hydrogen is produced utilizing photo voltaic and wind energy to electrolyze water; the ensuing hydrogen can later be transformed again into electrical energy by gas cells.

“If we had this useful resource and it was working on clear gas, we might provide it as capability into the grid at instances when it was wanted or we might present ancillary companies,” Janous stated. “It does open up, I believe, an enormous alternative for us.”

“Once I have a look at how a lot cash we spend yearly on backup technology and [uninterruptible power supply] and these items, it’s actually billions of dollars,” he stated. “We’re this and going, why wouldn’t we discover a option to monetize these property?”

Why quitting diesel is difficult for knowledge heart operators

Like most cloud suppliers, Microsoft installs diesel mills at its Azure knowledge facilities to be run within the case of energy outages or different disruptions.

Diesel represents a tiny however persistent portion of Microsoft’s gas combine, accounting for about 1 p.c of the corporate’s whole emissions. Nonetheless, the continuing reliance on diesel doesn’t sit nicely with Microsoft’s lately introduced purpose to be carbon detrimental by 2030.

“We don’t suppose the trade can proceed to develop on the again of diesel gas as a standby, particularly given the dimensions we’re working at right now,” Janous stated. “We all know we have now to do one thing else.”

The choices are restricted right now for changing diesel at an affordable price. Most of Microsoft’s diesel mills are fired up very hardly ever — typically solely as soon as a month to ensure they nonetheless run correctly. Critically, nonetheless, such mills can run for an prolonged interval within the occasion of a severe energy outage, a capability that eludes batteries right now.

To fill that function, “hydrogen is without doubt one of the issues we’re , [along with] completely different types of artificial diesel gas and longer period batteries,” Janous stated.

Hydrogen tanks exterior the Utah lab the place Microsoft ran its take a look at. (Credit score: Energy Improvements)

Whereas nonetheless a great distance from industrial actuality, inexperienced hydrogen is quickly catching on amongst policymakers and main vitality corporations as a possible pathway to decarbonization of the electrical energy sector. Final week NextEra Vitality, the biggest U.S. generator of wind and solar energy, revealed plans to construct its first inexperienced hydrogen facility in Florida, to be fueled by solar energy.

Hydrogen vs. batteries?

A U.S. appeals courtroom lately upheld the Federal Vitality Regulatory Fee’s Order 841, which clears the way in which for transmission grid operators to open their markets to vitality storage. That’s a “actually favorable” ruling for house owners of distributed vitality property, Janous stated.

Microsoft is “constructing utility-scale property, simply in a distributed vogue … we have now probably a whole lot of megawatts, they simply occur to be sitting behind our meter.”

Might inexperienced hydrogen current a risk for battery makers, that are racing to commercialize applied sciences that provide longer period backup?

In some ways, hydrogen and batteries “clear up the identical issues,” Janous stated. A lot of the capabilities that on-site hydrogen infrastructure would offer, “an extended period battery might in all probability do exactly as nicely — and with out the complexity of counting on the hydrogen economic system to develop.”

In relation to knowledge facilities, there’ll in all probability find yourself being a marketplace for each, he stated. In some locations, “a fuel-based useful resource may very well find yourself being a greater answer than chemical storage, and vice versa.”

“I believe we’re going to seek out eventualities the place, as an example, we could also be working in elements of the grid or places on this planet the place there’s a decrease reliability or availability of electrical energy, by which case having some accessible gas on web site might be actually vital.”

In the meantime, in locations the place the grid is very dependable and fed by giant quantities of low-cost renewable energy, “batteries often is the excellent answer.”

Microsoft scaling up its hydrogen assessments — and the trade

Microsoft’s hydrogen take a look at, carried out final month at Energy Innovation’s Hydrogen Gasoline Cell Innovation lab in Utah, powered the equal of a “complete row of computer systems in a knowledge heart,” stated Mark Monroe, Microsoft’s principal infrastructure engineer.

4 automotive gas cells had been run in parallel to ship 10,500 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy over the 48-hour take a look at, masking a load of round 200 kilowatts.

The following take a look at will scale as much as three megawatts, which might cowl a “complete room’s value of computer systems,” Monroe stated.

For safety causes, Microsoft is unlikely to announce the main points of its subsequent, greater take a look at beforehand, however “we anticipate to do it comparatively quickly,” Monroe stated.

Microsoft continues to be evaluating whether or not it might make sense to personal and function hydrogen infrastructure or whether or not to contract that work out. “We’ve seen all of these fashions within the analysis we’ve carried out within the hydrogen trade,” Monroe stated.

Regardless of its massive potential, Monroe acknowledged that inexperienced hydrogen has a protracted option to go earlier than it might meet the wants of an organization like Microsoft, not to mention the broader vitality trade.

Past its still-expensive prices, there’s the tiny provide chain to take care of: “Only some thousand gas cells get manufactured annually; certainly one of our knowledge facilities might devour a good portion of any gas cell producer’s manufacturing,” he stated.

“If we went full-bore hydrogen — which we’re not speaking about doing but — however someday sooner or later if it catches on within the trade, we’ve bought to ensure there are many suppliers and so they perceive what the potential demand is, and the way shortly that demand might come from an organization like Microsoft.”

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