eBay's renewable energy bloom latest in green data center race

Editor's Note: To learn about eBay's data center design using Bloom Energy's fuel cells, be sure to check out VERGE@Greenbuild, November 12-13.

Dean Nelson, who oversees data centers for eBay, told me recently that he had two big business problems to solve: getting control of the company's power costs and finding an alternative source of energy to the coal used to power the electricity in its Utah data center. 

Nelson and his boss, CEO John Donahoe, have just taken one big step towards solving both problems. The company announced on Thursday that it will expand a data center in South Jordan, Utah, by acquiring fuel cells from Bloom Energy, a private company that already supplies fuel cells to eBay headquarters in San Jose.

The data center installation will deliver six megawatts of energy. That’s a lot. eBay says the project will be “the largest non-utility fuel cell installation” in the US. For its part, Apple is building a 4.8 MW Bloom Energy fuel cell project at its data center in Maiden, North Carolina.

The fuel-cell installation costs more than grid electricity in Utah, eBay says, but the company expects the price of electricity in the state to go up, Nelson told me.

“The rates will go up, no matter what,” he says, in part because existing cheap coal plants will have to be phased out to meet new EPA rules.

Major announcement

This is a major announcement for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the latest in a series of commitments to clean energy from data center owners who until fairly recently would locate their data centers purely based on cost.

"They’ve got low power costs today,” Nelson told me, “and that’s a driver for companies to come.”

That’s one reason why eBay has data facilities in Utah. It’s a state where the grid is powered by cheap coal.

The source of the energy had been troubling to the business, however.

"We love being in Utah," Nelson told me. "But Utah was our biggest problem because the electricity comes mostly from coal."

Similarly, Apple, Google and Facebook all have built data centers in rural North Carolina because the area offers low cost land, generous tax breaks and cheap, coal-fired power.

Photo: The eBay headquarters in San Jose, Calif. operates a 500 kW fuel cell installation on site. Photo courtesy of eBay.

Next page: Competition for the "cleanest and greenest"