Hydrogen emerging as a clean energy alternative to power DCs
Published 2 April 2021
As the drive towards sustainability is moving at a break neck speed, corporations on their part are making an effort to build “green” at the centre of everything. Most of the new data centre build outs are happening with renewable energy at the centre of powering its gargantuan needs. Take the case of Singapore. The country’s data centre industry accounted for 7 per cent of the countries total electricity consumption in 2012. This ratio is expected to reach 12 per cent by 2030 due to rapid growth in DC business.
Enter the Hydrogen!
Hydrogen is beginning to emerge as an important part of the clean energy mix needed to ensure a sustainable future. It can also help improve air quality and strengthen energy security. Falling costs for hydrogen produced with renewable energy, combined with the urgency of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, has given clean hydrogen unprecedented political and business momentum, according to a report by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
In February this year, Atos and HDF Energy announced their plan to develop a complete end-to-end long-term solution to supply data centres with green hydrogen generated by renewable energy. The new solution by Atos and HDF will be the first available on the market for data centres with heavy power consuming workloads, company officials said. HDF Energy is an Independent Power Producer (IPP) focussing on utility-scale clean power generation.
“We are constantly seeking to develop solutions to leverage our own sustainable journey towards decarbonization and to support our clients in theirs. In this perspective, the solution to be developed by Atos and HDF will be the first solution available on the market that will enable a full production datacenter with very demanding workloads to be operated using green hydrogen. This meets the expectations not only of operators, but also of the market and public authorities.” says Arnaud Bertrand, SVP, Head of Strategy and Innovation for Big Data & Security at Atos.
“We are very excited to develop the first-of-its-kind green datacenter with Atos. HDF is a pioneer in hydrogen-energy and it is very important for us to demonstrate that our Hydrogen-to-Power solutions are suitable for customers with a strategic need for a reliable electricity supply. This further development into the digital industry, where energy consumption is increasing every day, opens up a considerable worldwide market for us. The HDF-Atos partnership offers the first unique and sustainable infrastructure for this huge market.” stated Damien Havard, CEO at HDF.
Atos will provide a complete end-to-end green data center solution by designing and providing the hardware, software and integration services that make it possible to exploit the electricity produced by green hydrogen so that it can be used in data centres. This includes using the most advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to optimise energy consumption.
HDF Energy will supply a power plant, which will provide predictable and firm electricity thanks to its high-powered fuel cells. These cells will be powered by green hydrogen derived from photovoltaic or wind farms.
According to US Dept of Energy, a data centre consumes 100-200 times power when compared to an office building. “Energy alone cosumes 50 per cent of a data centre’s operating costs,” according to Professor Wen Yonggang from NTU College of Engineering. Prof Wen’s latest work on DCWiz for Data Centre Digital Transformation has researched on green data centre, including data centre cooling systems, power systems and the world’s first tropical air free-cooled data centre testbed.
Where hydrogen helps
The current policy debate suggests that now is the time to scale up technologies and to bring down costs to allow hydrogen to become widely used. Hydrogen can help tackle various critical energy challenges.
It offers ways to decarbonise a range of sectors – including intensive and long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel – where it is proving difficult to meaningfully reduce emissions. Additionally, it increases flexibility in power systems. Hydrogen is versatile in terms of supply and use.
Also, it is a free energy carrier that can be produced by many energy sources. Hydrogen can enable renewables to provide an even greater contribution. It has the potential to help with variable output from renewables, such as solar photovoltaics (PV).
Hydrogen is one of the options for storing energy from renewables and looks poised to become a lowest-cost option for storing large quantities of electricity over days, weeks or even months. Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels can transport energy from renewable sources over long distances.
Transition challenges galore
Even as the case for Hydrogen is attractive, concerns remain. From designing hardware to usage of software (that consumes optimum electricity), everything needs to be looked into minutely.
“In order to develop a green data center, there are many challenges to tackle. You need to reduce the energy consumption of the data center, and to make the consumed energy greener,” says François Trahay – Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department at the Institut Polytechnique de Paris.
At the hardware level, the servers need to consume as little energy as possible while providing enough computing power to process an increasing amount of data. This means that processor manufacturers constantly improve their hardware design so that billions of transistors only consume a few Watts while being able to process billions of instructions per second.
“At a data centre scale, the cooling of servers and the air flow within the server room is optimised in order to cool tens of thousands of servers with as little energy as possible. The heat produced by servers can be collected and reused to heat buildings,” points out Trahay.
At the software level, finding new algorithms that process data efficiently is key to reducing the energy consumption of servers. The other main challenge is to exploit computing resources efficiently by improving the operating systems or by grouping applications on a few servers so that idle servers can be switched off.
“In addition to the reduction of energy consumption, a green data centre also needs to consume energy that does not generate greenhouse gases,” opines Trahay. For instance, data centers in Iceland can be powered by geothermal or hydroelectric power.
Another possibility is to use wind or solar energy. But such fluctuating resources require to be able to adapt the energy consumption of the data centre, or to store the energy so that it can be used later.
Development of blue hydrogen as a transition solution also faces challenges in terms of production upscaling and supply logistics. Development and deployment of CCUS has lagged compared to the objectives set in the last decade. Additional costs pose a challenge, as well as the economies of scale that favour large projects. Public acceptance can be an issue as well. Synergies may exist between green and blue hydrogen deployment, for example economies of scale in hydrogen use or hydrogen logistics.
Also, a hydrogen-based energy transition will not happen overnight. Hydrogen will likely trail other strategies such as electrification of end-use sectors and its use will target specific applications.
The need for a dedicated new supply infrastructure may limit hydrogen use to certain countries that decide to follow this strategy. Therefore, hydrogen efforts should not be considered a panacea.
Instead, hydrogen represents a complementary solution that is especially relevant for countries with ambitious climate objectives. Per unit of energy, hydrogen supply costs are 1.5 to 5 times those of natural gas, according to industry watchers.
Low-cost and highly efficient hydrogen applications warrant such a price difference. Also, decarbonisation of a significant share of global emissions will require clean hydrogen or hydrogen-derived fuels.
Currently, significant energy losses occur in hydrogen production, transport and conversion. Reducing these losses is critical for the reduction of the hydrogen supply cost.
Dedicated hydrogen pipelines have been in operation for decades. Transport of hydrogen via existing and refurbished gas pipelines is being explored. This may reduce new infrastructure investment needs and help to accelerate a transition, according to the IRENA report.
However, equipment standards need to be adjusted, which may take time. Whether the way ahead involves radical natural gas replacement or gradually changing mixtures of natural gas and hydrogen mixtures is still unclear, observes IRENA.
While international hydrogen commodity shipping is being developed, another opportunity that deserves more attention is trade of energy-intensive commodities produced with hydrogen. Ammonia production, iron and steel making, and liquids for aviation, marine bunkers or feedstock for synthetic organic materials production (so-called electrofuels or e-fuels that are part of a power-to-X strategy) seem to be prime markets.
However, cost and efficiency barriers need to be overcome. This may offer an opportunity to accelerate global renewables deployment with economic benefits.
How energy-intensive areas such as data centres use this will be interesting to look at, going forward.