eBay Opens Fuel Cell Powered Data Centre In Utah

No more UPS and no more diesel generators for eBay in Salt Lake City

eBay has opened a modular data centre in Utah entirely powered by natural gas-consuming Bloom Energy fuel cells, eliminating traditional UPS systems, and having the electricity grid as back-up

The online auction giant announced plans last year for a fuel-cell powered extension to its data centre in South Jordan, Salt Lake City, Utah which also uses solar panels. The move offers the potential for data centres to become independent of the electricity grid, and reduce their emissions substantially, according to a press announcement by Bloom and eBay. The data centre has a sustained PUE (power usage effectiveness) of 1.2.

ebay bloom data centreFuel cells for the future

“We had to select the technology which would give the most performance at the lowest cost, without impacting the planet,” said Dean Nelson, eBay’s vice president for foundation services, speaking at an eBay webcast from the Utah plant.

The eBay data centre reverses the normal role of fuel cells, using 30 Bloom boxes for primary power, with the grid relegated to an emergency backup role. Bloom’s fuel cells use solid oxide to convert natural gas to energy without combustion, till now, fuel cells have been used to supplement the grid.

“Generators and UPSs are used for less than one percent of the year,” said Nelson. “We have a huge investment of tens of millions of dollars in that. Is it really the best way to do it?”  The switch to fuel cells actually meant eBay halting specification of its own UPS systems, and abandoning diesel generators, he said. “It was a leap of faith, but a confident leap of faith,” he added, because a distributed system of Bloom boxes is actually more resilient than the alternative.

The approach is greener for multiple reasons, said Nelson, because it uses renewable energy which was hard to source in other ways, as well as eliminating wasteful transmission of the power it generates: “We are generating MegaWatts of power on site and consuming it 100 feet away. That’s extremely efficient.” Natural gas generation is about 50 percent cleaner than the Utah grid average, he said.

“What eBay has done is truly revolutionary and will have a huge impact on how data centres are built,” said Peter Gross, vice president of mission critical Systems at Bloom Energy.

ebay data centre Dell Epic module

The site uses special container modules from both Dell and HP for the data centre itself.

Dell’s “EPIC” containers are the densest in the world, according to Dell, fitting up to 1MW of power into 24 racks.

HP’s new EcoPod modules designed for eBay are double-width and connect up to 1.4MW to 44 racks of servers.

Despite its desert location, the data centre should need little or no air-conditioning to cool the servers, relying on lower-energy outside-air cooling, supplemented by evaporative cooling.

The site also has a recovered energy generator (REG) by Ormat, which recovers wasted heat from pumping the natural gas at a plant 22 miles away, and returns that energy to eBay over the electricity grid.

eBay has been able to move more quickly on green data centres, because it restructured so the facilities management and IT  teams report to the same person: “By rolling all the teams together you are working towards the same goals,” he said, adding that the teams previously did not speak the same language.

The firm operates a green “dashboard” measuring  Digital Service Efficiency (DSE) to share the results within the company and with partners. Efficiency in this case is based on the energy required for all the URL requests it delivers, which Nelson describes as a “miles per gallon” measurement for digital infrastructure.

eBay previously tested a 500kW Bloom unit, and it paid for itself within three years.

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eBay Utah data centre

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eBay Utah data centre
Dell's Utah data centre is the first to make its own primary power from fuel cells