Caterpillar Demonstrates Hydrogen Backup Power Supply for Data Centers

Worker in a data center

(Credit: Ballard Power Systems)

by | Jan 24, 2024

Caterpillar, in collaboration with Microsoft and Ballard Power Systems, has successfully demonstrated the use of large-format hydrogen fuel cells to provide a reliable, clean backup power option for data centers.

The demonstration simulated a 48-hour power backup for a Microsoft data center in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The project was able to show the hydrogen fuel cell’s abilities in an extreme environment as the demonstration took place at 6,000 feet above sea level and in below-freezing temperatures. The 1.5-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell, made by Ballard Power Systems, was used alongside a Caterpillar Microgrid Controller, which operated two of the company’s grid stabilization battery energy storage systems.

The Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office partially funded the demonstration project, and the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory analyzed safety and emissions impact throughout.

“We see the completion of this demonstration as an important proof point of the reliability and durability of Ballard’s fuel cells in providing zero-emission backup power for data centers,” said David Mucciacciaro, chief commercial officer for Ballard Power Systems. “We are excited about the ability of our products to meet the critical power needs of data center customers in this rapidly growing sector.”

Data Centers Shift to Renewables as Backup Power Often Relies on Fossil Fuels

Data centers are known for their high energy intensity, especially as internet usage increases worldwide. Several major tech companies, including Microsoft and Google, have shifted to using renewable energy sources or nuclear energy to power their data centers.

However, even data centers powered by 100% renewable energy may still rely on fossil fuel-based sources for power backup. Backup generators, while used less frequently, are critical for internet networks to continue running despite power outages. Hydrogen-powered backup alternatives allow for continued zero-emissions power generation despite outages, also meeting the 99.99% uptime required of data centers, according to Caterpillar.

Aside from its use for data centers, hydrogen has been explored as a backup energy source for a wide range of industries. Recently, Hitachi Energy unveiled a hydrogen-powered generator demonstration unit that may be used for mining sites, hospitals, hotels, or in areas where connection to power grids may be impractical.

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