Honda trialling fuel cell technology as a backup power source
Following Honda’s announcement that it plans to reach carbon neutrality for all products and corporate activities by 2050, the brand has announced a new trial to utilise hydrogen fuel cell technology as a back-up fuel source. The fuel cell demonstrator project has been set up on Honda’s corporate campus in Torrance, California, and the stationary fuel cell unit has a capacity of approximately 500kW. It reuses the fuel cell systems of previously leased Honda Clarity Fuel Cell vehicles, with a design that allows the output to increase every 250kW packaged with four fuel cells. Honda intends to apply stationary fuel cell systems to its manufacturing facilities and data centres across the globe, thereby reducing the company’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The firm notes that data centres require reliable power, where any disruption in the power supply can lead to downtime or problems such as data corruption and server damage. Typical stationary back-up generators rely on diesel fuel, which results in higher carbon emissions and local air pollutants. The hope is that hydrogen can offer a clean and reliable energy source, particularly when operating on so-called “green hydrogen” made from renewable sources, with water vapour as the only emission[i].
Koji Moriyama, project lead of the stationary fuel cell and principal engineer with American Honda R&D Business Unit, said: “We believe there’s great promise in hydrogen fuel cells for backup power and offsetting potential peak power events.” He added: “By installing and utilizing our core technology, the fuel cell system, in various applications such as stationary power generation, Honda aims to stimulate hydrogen usage and provide clean energy for potential commercial customers.”[ii]
It follows a trial last year by Microsoft, which utilised hydrogen fuel cells located within two 40-foot-long shipping containers. The trial was the first of its kind- where Microsoft was able to supply power on the scale of more traditional fossil fuel generators. The PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) fuel test at Latham generated three megawatts of power, and at the time, Sean James, Microsoft's director of data centre research, said:
“What we just witnessed was, for the data centre industry, a moon landing. We have a generator that produces no emissions. It’s mind-blowing.”[iii] Notably, data centres have high energy demands due to the requirement for them to be operational more than 99.99% of the time, in order to provide the reliable services upon which most of the digital economy depends.
Microsoft suggests that their findings pave the way for the adoption of hydrogen fuel cells across sectors where backup generators are used; this includes not only data centres, but also hospitals, the construction sector, and even live events.
Environmental impact of data storage raising concerns
As we reported last year in our blog, ‘your throw-away Facebook & Instagram snaps might be damaging the environment[iv]’, staggering volumes of data are being sent to the cloud every day, with this data ending up in data centres across the globe. Given this, it is unsurprising that the requirement for electricity, as well as computing equipment to facilitate demand is also on the rise. It is estimated that in 2021 data centres accounted for between 0.9-1.3% of global energy usage,[v] lessened in part by rapid improvements in energy efficiency, which have helped to limit growth in energy demand. Further, data centres themselves create vast amounts of heat, meaning electricity-hungry cooling systems must also be in place. Greenpeace argues that, from its estimates, “by 2025, the technology sector could consume 20% of the world’s total electricity; this increase from 7% currently (2019) is attributed to the expansion of cloud computing and the further development of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, which require a great deal of computing power.”[vi]
In Ireland, for example, as of 2021, data centres already account for 11% of Irish Electric grid capacity, with this forecast to reach 28% of grid capacity by the end of the decade (based on existing connections). Yet, “If all other data centres proposed for Ireland are allowed, their energy use would comprise 70 per cent of capacity on the national grid”[vii] by 2030.
“In the last four years alone the annual increase in electricity usage by data centres is equivalent to adding 140,000 homes to the national grid every year. An average data centre with a load of 60 MW would be comparable to the load usage of a city such as Kilkenny (population 22,000).”[viii]
[i] Honda Global | March 6 , 2023 "Honda’s Zero Emission Stationary Fuel Cell Provides Back Up Power to a Data Center "
[ii] Honda Global | March 6 , 2023 "Honda’s Zero Emission Stationary Fuel Cell Provides Back Up Power to a Data Center "
[iv] Your Throw-away Facebook & Instagram Snaps Might be Damaging the Environment… Here’s Why: | Zero Carbon Academy
[v] Data Centres and Data Transmission Networks – Analysis - IEA
[vi] Uncovering the Environmental Impact of Cloud Computing | Earth.Org - Past | Present | Future
[vii] Data centres could use 70% of Ireland’s electricity by 2030, committee to hear (irishtimes.com)
[viii] Data centres could use 70% of grid by 2030 - expert (rte.ie)
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