Dutch data center operator NorthC will be installing fuel cells that run on "green" hydrogen at a new Groningen data center.

NorthC says the Groningen facility will be the first data center in Europe whose backup power comes from hydrogen created by electrolysis. The company is installing 500kW of fuel cells at a new 1.5MW facility in the town which appears not to have been previously announced.

The news follows Microsoft's announcement of multiple tests of the technology in the US, including a three-year megawatt scale test just starting in Quincy, Washington.

northc hydrogen crop.jpg
– NorthC

NorthC will explore using the technology at its other data centers in the Netherlands.

NorthC gas

Most data centers have energy stored in batteries, and use diesel generators to provide backup power when the grid is interrupted. Many operators are paying to use renewable electricity for their primary power, and some are now moving to eliminate fossil fuel from backup systems - although most such systems are only operated for a few hours per year, using a tiny proportion of the energy used by primary power.

Fuel cells can be run on methane or hydrogen, both of which can come from fossil fuel sources. Conventional diesel engines can also be run on renewable fuels, including hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), which can be made from waste fats.

NorthC will install a 500kW hydrogen cell module in a new data center, Groningen 2, which will open in June. This will be built in three 500kW modular stages, up to a maximum of 1.5MW, with each stage backed by a 500kW fuel cells, a NorthC spokesperson told DCD.

The new facility will be close to NorthC's existing Groningen data center, which has 1.2MW of installed power

The operator says the fuel cell at Groningen 2 will save tens of thousands of liters of diesel per year, the equivalent of 78 tons of CO2, comparable to taking 24 cars off the Netherlands' roads.

NorthC pays for 100 percent renewable energy at its data centers, and is investigating generating its own energy, according to its statement on sustainability. It has also promised to see that its waste heat is reused where possible. Jarno Bloem, COO at NorthC Datacenters, says: “The data center industry has a responsibility to ensure that we operate as sustainably as possible. An important next step is to switch from emergency power generators that run on diesel to sustainable alternatives. We believe that green hydrogen offers the best possibilities in this respect and have therefore entered into a partnership with Nedstack – one of the frontrunners in the field of large hydrogen cells."

Hydrogen cells are more expensive than traditional diesel generators, but the running costs are expected to fall as the hydrogen market develops. NorthC says the Groningen region is likely to have a fast-growing green hydrogen sector, with operators like Nedstack providing them fuel cells for maritime and industrial use, as well as for transportation. Hydrogen cells are expected to have a service life of 20 years or more.

NorthC is also investigating converting an existing diesel plant to run on hydrogen. Although this would be less efficient than fuel cells, it could make a quicker route to cutting some 80 percent of emissions from backup.

‘With these hydrogen cells, our data center in Groningen has a European first for emergency power supplies. We are now going to investigate if we can also apply this technology in our other data centers, initially mainly in new branches or expansions of existing branches. The ultimate goal, of course, is to use green hydrogen as a primary power supply, but that is still something to address in the future. An important condition is a drop in the costs of hydrogen. This requires subsidies and an increase in scale. But given the enormous advantages that this form of energy offers, I am convinced that it is just a matter of time,’ Bloem concludes.

Other ways to reduce backup emissions include using oil from vegetable sources and waste oil. Microsoft is using some renewable fuel in Sweden, and DEAC in Latvia has signed up to use recycled oil.

This article has been updated to include details about the new data center, Groningen 2.

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