One major advantage of renewable energy is access to a reliable supply of power at a more predictable price than conventional grid-supplied electricity. That’s especially important to tech companies like AT&T, which has just announced that it is expanding its use of fuel cells to power 28 data centers and other facilities in California and Connecticut.
The fuel cells, provided by Bloom Energy, will insulate AT&T’s facilities from grid-supplied electricity price spikes as well as brownouts, blackouts and other grid disruptions. Though fuel cells don’t necessarily count as renewable energy, in this case they will take a big chunk off the carbon footprint of AT&T’s California facilities, and that’s a good start.
Bloom Energy fuel cells and carbon emissions
Whether it’s biomass, garbage, coal, oil or natural gas, conventional power plants burn stuff to generate electricity. Fuel cells are different. Instead of setting raw materials on fire, they employ a chemical reaction to produce an electrical current.
Given that basic difference, it seems safe to assume that fuel cells involve lower carbon emissions than combustion-based electricity generation, and that is the case.
According to AT&T, Bloom Energy’s “Bloom Box” fuel cells will cut carbon emissions by around 50 percent. They will also eliminate particulate emissions that form smog, including nitrogen and sulfur oxides.
AT&T has already made a previous investment in Bloom Boxes, and this latest round brings it up to a total of 17.1 megawatts of capacity among the 28 sites. All together, the Bloom Box installations will provide more than 149 million kilowatt hours annually.
Cleaner, but not renewable…yet
Fuel cells have been around for more than a century, and by the 1960s they were being routinely used in space flight. Conventional fuel cell technology involves drawbacks that hindered its adaptation to widespread commercial use, including high costs and the use of toxic substances.
One emerging solution has been the development of solid oxide fuel cells, which are based on high tech ceramics and other relatively low cost materials.
Solid oxide fuel cells function at extremely high temperatures, which presents another hurdle, but Bloom Energy has developed a solution in the form of its “revolutionary” Bloom Box technology.
Bloom’s solid oxide fuel cells produce an electrical current from a reaction between air and natural gas, which means that although they offer a cleaner alternative to combustion-based power generation, they are not necessarily a renewable energy solution.
However, Bloom Boxes can run on natural gas from sources other than ancient underground deposits. That would include renewable sources such as landfill gas and biogas from livestock farms or municipal wastewater treatment plants.
If AT&T’s Bloom Boxes are not using renewable gas now, that’s something to consider for the future.
Taking control of your energy destiny
As Obi-Wan would say, you cannot escape your destiny, but AT&T demonstrates that you can control it.
For Bloom Energy, of course, the key to control is the Bloom Box. In a prepared statement, Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar said:
“AT&T continues to be on the forefront of energy management and understands the need to find innovative ways to power the next generation. The investment they are making now not only means they will have control on their own energy destiny, but will also help ensure a brighter and more energy rich future for all.”
Installing on-site capacity in the form of fuel cells is one part of the equation. Renewable energy is another part, and in its 2011 Sustainability Report, AT&T also notes that it has already installed almost 3.9 megawatts of solar capacity at its facilities.
Energy efficiency is the third leg of this three-legged stool, and in that regard AT&T has logged 8,700 separate energy efficiency projects that saved the company $86 million in the past two years.
AT&T has gone the extra mile by forming partnerships with groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and Rocky Mountain Institute to reach out beyond its internal management structure and explore new energy conservation strategies.
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