'Green' technology gets attention of big power users

Joseph Weller, the manager of computer operations at Delta Dental of Michigan, just purchased a hydrogen fuel cell car kit for his 10-year-old grandson's birthday. "I thought it was kind of cool," he said with a wide grin between sessions at the Afcom data center conference. But Weller said he has a professional interest in the toy car's energy system, too.

"We have to find alternative means of power -- we can't rely on current technology," said Weller, noting that if the fuel cell can move a 12-inch toy car, the technology may have the "capability of providing energy to a facility." The Okemos-based insurer has some 5.5 million members.

There's a growing interest in "green" technologies, even if data managers at this conference will readily admit that they don't see things like fuel cells arriving in their data centers anytime soon because of the technology's immaturity and cost. But efforts are under way to figure out how best to power data centers with alternative fuels.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have begun exploring whether fuel cell technology can be used to power the NIH's data center facilities, said Paul Powell, data center manager for the Bethesda, Md.-based federal agency. Powell is interested in fuel cells, but finds it difficult to believe that the technology can power his data centers.

"As a data center manager, I have concerns: It's going to take up an awful lot of space," he said.

Fuel cells rely on hydrogen and chemical reactions to produce energy, leaving water as a by-product. One company that introduced fuel cells last year for data center use is American Power Conversion Corp. (APC), but the technology is intended for niche uses at this point. A fuel cell costs about 10 times that of a generator, and those firms that have either adopted fuel cells in data centers are typically located in high-rise buildings where generators aren't an option, or in situations requiring portable energy supplies.