Navigant Research Blog

Microsoft Deploys Fuel Cells into the Core of World’s First Gas Data Center

— October 12, 2017

Fuel cells have been used to power data centers for years, with players including Apple, eBay, and Equinix all making big investments in the technology. But while most fuel cells power data center facilities from the outside, Microsoft just built a pilot data center with the fuel cells installed right on the racks. This is a shift that could radically simplify future data center infrastructure and improve energy efficiency in these energy-hungry facilities. The big investments noted above notwithstanding, fuel cells have only captured a small fraction of data center market share. New types of deployments like Microsoft’s data center could help drive fuel cells toward the segment’s mainstream.

A Unique Fuel Cell Application

The unique design routes natural gas piping directly to the server racks, which could help eliminate a significant amount of electrical wiring, gear, and controls typical to data centers. A photo from Microsoft’s blog post depicts at least five devices that appear to be fuel cells positioned atop the rack. At an assumed 5 kW-10 kW per rack, the 20 racks likely represent a load of 100 kW-200 kW. The deployment is a good fit for fuel cells since they can be readily scaled in size to match load. That is, a given system can add or remove individual cells or stacks to precisely match demand, a feat not possible with more monolithic alternatives like generator sets (gensets) or microturbines.

There are some potential challenges with this configuration. Installing that much fuel cell support infrastructure (exhaust flue, gas piping, and controls, etc.) could impose significant cost on installations, and maintenance on all those systems could be more taxing than on a single multi-megawatt system installed outdoors. And gas-powered systems generally face the challenge of gas grid outages. Though these are rarer than electric grid outages, they represent a concern—especially in seismic zones like those on the US West Coast. When an outage occurs, many data centers still rely on diesel backup generators since the fuel can be stored onsite. Despite these challenges, this type of deployment shows promise, thanks to ongoing fuel cell technology improvements and the low cost of natural gas.

New Players Enter the Arena

Microsoft mentions project partners McKinstry, a design-build construction firm, and Cummins, an engine and genset manufacturer. Though the fuel cell provider is not noted, Cummins teamed up with UK-based Ceres Power Holdings PLC to develop solid oxide fuel cells for data centers under a Department of Energy (DOE) award in 2016. The award specifies a minimum efficiency of 60% and a capacity of 5 kW scalable to 100 kW. That efficiency is slightly below the 65% (lower heating value) efficiency listed by Bloom Energy, which has largely dominated data center fuel cell deployments to date—though its systems are larger. Regardless of the approach, the high efficiency and consistent energy output of fuel cells is a good match for data centers at large.

While the current design operates on natural gas, a modified future system using pure hydrogen storage could help zero-carbon data centers incorporate intermittent renewable power. That is, the intermittency of renewables like solar PV has historically limited adoption on data center sites, which form a consistent load. If, however, that PV or wind system could generate hydrogen using an electrolyzer in a power-to-gas configuration, the energy could be stored to consistently power the data center via fuel cells. These types of innovations could represent a massive opportunity. According to Yole Développement, data centers used 1.6% of global power production in 2015 and are anticipated to grow to 1.9% in 2020. By any measure, the opportunities in this space loom large.

 

Smart Home Expanding at European Utility Week

— October 12, 2017

European Utility Week (EUW) is Europe’s flagship energy event of the year. It brings together over 10,000 delegates covering the entire smart energy value chain. I had a chance to attend this landmark event last week and was intrigued by the transition occurring in the energy industry. This event’s roots clearly lie in network operations and grid infrastructure, though it also displays cutting-edge technology and innovations transforming the energy ecosystem, as my colleague Stuart Ravens explains. Wandering between booths and networking with energy stakeholders, I noticed the energy industry becoming smarter through data analytics, services, and the smart home.

Data Analytics

Data analytics was a major theme at EUW this year. The energy industry is no different from other industries that are starting to realize the value in big data and the advanced applications it can enable. From Schneider Electric’s display of its EcoStruxture platform to a demo of REstore demand-side management software, it is clear that companies are investing in data analytics to optimize grid operations. A few of the main data-based applications that I noticed at EUW included:

  • Asset performance management, which analyzes data from sensors deployed throughout the grid to monitor assets and help utilities reduce unscheduled downtime, prevent equipment failures, reduce maintenance costs, extend equipment life, and identify underperforming assets.
  • Demand response platforms, which crunch data to determine the available capacity of residential and commercial and industrial assets that can be aggregated to participate in capacity markets.
  • Meter management software, which can be used to power customer billing tools or monitor the health of a meter.

Though many utilities are still easing into data analytics and few are actually using such advanced applications, these types of data-based solutions demonstrate the future of the energy industry.

Services

Services are emerging as a natural progression to hardware and software offerings. As much as I saw industrial-looking, complex grid hardware on display, I also saw vendors peddling software as a service (SaaS) and cloud services. One example of a vendor pursuing the services market is GE, whose booth featured its Predix Cloud service for asset performance management, grid monitoring and diagnostics, and utility field operations. Another company, Aclara, revealed during a briefing that the company is trying to become and end-to-end solution provider by not only supplying utility companies with grid infrastructure, but also offering a SaaS platform that uses data from their infrastructure to power software modules. Vendors in this space recognize the need to expand outside of hardware sales and use the infrastructure they have deployed to offer services that help make utility operations more efficient and provide new and recurring revenue.

The Smart Home

The utility/consumer relationship is becoming more important in the changing energy landscape, which was made obvious by the number of smart home booths at EUW. As traditional utility business models are challenged by distributed energy resources and more efficient energy technologies, utilities must look for other options to maintain revenue. This often involves engaging end users, which requires utilities to differentiate themselves and increase customer satisfaction. Companies like Bidgely and Smappee are helping utilities achieve this vision with device disaggregation and personalized energy consumption software. Other companies like geo recognize the need to create more active homes that can become flexible grid assets, and their booths demonstrated these values. Whether the smart home solutions on display were focused on connected energy devices, customer engagement software, or comprehensive whole home solutions, it was clear that utilities are recognizing the importance end users are playing in the energy transition.

 

Storage in the Northwest: Overview of Threats and Opportunities

— October 10, 2017

Last week I had the opportunity to open up day 2 of the Northwest Demand Response + Energy Storage Summit. I gave an overview of what is happening with energy storage in the Pacific Northwest.

What Is the Current Market?

The region has a long history with pumped and dispatchable hydropower, so energy storage is not a new concept. However, battery powered systems are relatively new. Since 2010, many utilities have deployed 22 MW worth of projects for research, development, and pilots. Some of the larger projects include Portland General Electric’s Salem Smart Power Center and Puget Sound Energy’s Glacier Project. In the near term, the region’s pipeline for non-hydro project is small, but several drivers are quickly changing that.

Energy Storage Tracker for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, and Montana

(Source: Navigant)

What Is Driving Growth?

Key drivers for new storage developments include resilience needs, evolving business models, renewables integration, and greater access to financing, but the largest drivers are the following:

  • Policy: In Oregon, House Bill 2193 is requiring all investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to procure at least 5 MWh (but up to 1% of 2014 peak load) worth of energy storage. In Washington, the Clean Energy Fund has sponsored many storage demonstrations and the Utilities and Transportation Commission has directed all IOUs to include energy storage in their integrated resource plans.
  • Improving project economics: Energy storage costs continue to fall and we expect that to continue. Falling costs make energy storage competitive in more and more applications.
  • Customer interest: Customers of all types—from residential to large industrial—are getting interested in energy storage to help manage energy costs, provide resilience, and support sustainability.

What Barriers Does Storage Face in the Region?

Potential barriers that could slow down storage deployment in the region include the following:

  • Business models: Not finding the right regulatory and business models that allow a range of values to be captured for individual projects.
  • Pilots and projects: Poorly executed and evaluated pilots and early projects.
  • Technology issues: Technology—including communications, data gathering and management, and operations—that is not ready for energy storage.

Click here for a copy of my presentation.

 

Innovation Aplenty at the European Utility Week

— October 10, 2017

From October 3 to 5, the European energy industry converged on Amsterdam for European Utility Week, an event I have attended off and on since 2009. In a conservative, slow-moving industry, previous events have felt a little like the utility technology equivalent of Groundhog Day. This year’s event was far from it.

The 2017 exhibition is an excellent barometer for the current speed of industry change. And how things have changed. In 2009, the event was known as Metering, Billing/CRM Europe. This far from catchy title was somewhat misleading because metering and other electrical hardware companies ruled the exhibition floor, with a handful of billing vendors and nary a mention of CRM. Virtually all the exhibitors had many decades’ experience in the utilities industry.

Back to the Future

Fast forward to 2017. The exhibition is now 4 or 5 times larger and the focus has shifted from hardware to software. The hardware vendors of old have expanded their focus to offer a suite of products from the traditional metering business to communications, data, and analytics platforms into services. There is now a profusion of software vendors that would have looked out of place at the event of 2009. This reinforces the message that the energy transition is not just about a shift to smarter, cleaner generation, but a shift toward software that will manage future networks and enable new business models.

However, the most marked difference between this exhibition and those of previous years was the existence of many small booths for startups and several EU-funded Horizon 2020 demonstration projects. Nine years ago, startups in the energy industry were few and far between. Innovation was typically led by a utility that would develop solutions with a long-term partner that would, in turn, create products around these innovations and bring them to market. But how things have changed. Innovation does not have to occur with a utility’s blessing. The shift to software means entry costs are significantly lower, and startups are developing products that can just as easily compete directly with a utility as be adopted by them.

Disruption at the Edge

If this exhibition-as-bellwether idea runs true, utilities should raise their competitive threat levels a notch or two. Disruption at the edge is a key indicator of future disruption at the core, yet most companies fail to closely monitor startups chipping away at non-core parts of their business. The industry has entered the most disruptive decade in its century-long existence. Many utilities are planning for a more distributed, competitive future. Those that don’t run a real risk of becoming irrelevant in the not too distant future.

 

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