Data centers are stressing the Irish power grid. Are fuel cells the answer?

A test case in Ireland may show whether the devices are the real deal or just a dodge

June 26, 2024
Cables interlinking reminiscent of a data center
Ireland’s data centers use as much electricity as all its urban homes combined. [Credit: Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash] 

Data centers power the internet, but they can also power down cities. In Ireland, data centers are straining the electric grid to the brink of blackout threats. These dire warnings by EirGrid, the Irish electric grid operator, ushered in a 2022 ban on new construction of the energy-gulping facilities in Dublin, where they have proliferated. The skyrocketing power demand of data centers not only affects Ireland, but many countries, like Germany and Singapore, whose power grids are also under pressure from the centers. 

An Irish-South Korean consortium, however, is trying a different approach by building Europe’s first fuel cell-powered data center –– with no reliance on the grid –– in County Offaly. The partnership between Irish Lumcloon Energy and South Korean SK Ecoplant, will use solid oxide fuel cells to power the data center.

The solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) made by California-based Bloom Energy are steel boxes that can use many fuels to generate electricity, all while claiming to generate less carbon pollution than conventional power plants. Not everyone is celebrating though, as skeptics note that natural gas, not hydrogen, as Bloom’s marketing promotes, will power those cells for the foreseeable future. 

“The idea is that we use natural gas now to power data centers and we’ll switch to hydrogen eventually. But in the 20 years that Bloom has been in existence, they have never changed a natural gas fuel cell system over to hydrogen,” says Keith D. Patch, a consultant and former researcher in the alternative fuels sector. 

Bloom representatives don’t deny this, but say that in many countries, including Ireland, there are no hydrogen pipelines in place yet. “No one wants hydrogen more than Bloom,” urges Jeffrey Barber, Bloom’s global sales leader. In February, Ireland announced plans to research gas pipeline compatibility with hydrogen. 

But Bloom’s track record doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. As of 2020, the company had “never generated a profit, despite at least $1.7 billion of invested capital, some of which was raised on the back of false statements,” a Forbes article alleges. Bloom did not comment on the Forbes article, but pointed out that 2023 was their first year of profitability.

Ireland’s interest in SOFCs comes after a 2022 announcement by EirGrid to stop the building of new data centers to curb the growing power demands. There are already 82 data centers in Ireland, most of them clustered in South Dublin. By 2031, EirGrid expects that 28% of all Irish electricity demand will come from data centers. 

The moratorium “was designed to protect the grid and make sure that blackouts wouldn’t occur,” says Dylan Murphy, of Not Here, Not Anywhere — a group that successfully campaigned against data center construction in Dublin.

In the United States, a similar situation is brewing: Data centers are straining Oregon state’s power grid. “They come here to build data centers for the cool weather, and the even cooler tax breaks,” says Angus Duncan, former chair of Oregon’s Global Warming Commission. 

However, a 2023 Oregon bill threw a curveball at data center operators, instructing them to use clean, renewable energy. Apple and Facebook got the message and switched to wind and solar power. Amazon instead proposed Bloom’s SOFCs to power three new data centers. 

While Bloom says its fuel cells are moving toward zero carbon, some Oregon officials think they might even increase carbon emissions from data centers. 

A report by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality estimates 250,000 tons of carbon will be emitted by Amazon’s planned fuel-cell data centers, making it an “extreme outlier in Oregon’s IT sector.” Further, Amazon’s project targets loopholes in Oregon’s climate regulations, the report says. The plan is that fuel cells would be powered by interstate pipeline gas that is unregulated by the state, Duncan says. 

“The fuel cell is an interesting dodge,” says Oregon’s Duncan. “What they should do is develop renewable wind, solar, and battery storage to supply their needs, but instead they went for an intermediate stop.” An Amazon spokesperson said the company will continue engaging thoughtfully with the state and energy sector to meet a shared goal of clean, carbon free energy in Oregon.

A Bloom report says its SOFCs emit up to 377 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of power produced. This is higher than the average for Ireland’s energy industry, which in 2022 averaged about 331 grams per kilowatt hour. If that continues to hold true, Patch says, Bloom’s technology could increase Ireland’s carbon emissions. Bloom disputes this, saying the Irish figure includes emissions from energy sources that aren’t directly comparable to fuel cells.

However, SOFCs have some silver linings. Because they oxidize natural gas instead of combusting it, they don’t produce air pollutants like nitrogen oxide and sulfur. The heat from SOFCs could also power chillers to help cool overheating data centers and save energy, says Genevieve Saur, senior research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

Facing political pressure in Oregon and elsewhere, Amazon has quietly moved away from using the fuel cells and appears to be incorporating wind and solar power in their operations instead. But in Ireland, the fuel cell project is still moving full steam ahead. The Offaly data center is built on speculation, meaning it has yet to find a tenant. This is common in high-demand regions, Bloom says, and the risk of not finding a customer is “very low,” Barber adds. Speaking on a recent trip to Ireland, Barber says Ireland’s energy providers are “starting to open their eyes” to the claimed benefits of fuel cells.

Environmentalists like Murphy hope that won’t happen. He says fuel cells are a step backward for Ireland, which aims to eliminate its net carbon emissions by 2050. “We need a direct transition to cleaner fuels instead of this in-between period where we’re still using fossil fuels,” Murphy says.

About the Author

Dawn Attride

Dawn is an avid science storyteller from the South-East of Ireland. With her research background in Microbiology, she enjoys unraveling the latest developments in healthcare and biology, as well as covering environmental issues. Her passion for writing stems from her scientific curiosity and dislike of misinformation!


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