THP-E136: What Does Microsoft’s Shift To Hydrogen Mean For Large Facilities Electricity Grid Impact In The Future?

August 04, 2022 • Paul Rodden • Season: 2022 • Episode: 136

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Welcome to The Hydrogen Podcast!

In episode 136, On our last show, I talked about the news that Microsoft and plug have joined together to create one of the largest fuel cell generators ever to be used at one of Microsoft’s data centers, and also discussed some of the joys and struggles that plug had in designing this new system. And so today, I’d like to dive a little bit deeper into this news and see just how Microsoft envisions utilizing this technology in the long term. All of this on today’s hydrogen podcast.

Thank you for listening and I hope you enjoy the podcast. Please feel free to email me at with any questions. Also, if you wouldn’t mind subscribing to my podcast using your preferred platform… I would greatly appreciate it.

Paul Rodden



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On our last show, I talked about the news that Microsoft and Plug have joined together to create one of the largest fuel cell generators ever to be used at one of Microsoft’s data centers, and also discussed some of the joys and struggles that plug had in designing this new system. And so today, I’d like to dive a little bit deeper into this news and see just how Microsoft envisions utilizing this technology in the long term. All of this on today’s hydrogen podcast.

So the big questions in the energy industry today are, how is hydrogen the primary driving force behind the evolution of energy? Where’s capital being deployed for hydrogen projects globally? And where are the best investment opportunities for early adopters who recognize the importance of hydrogen? I will address the critical issues and give you the information you need to deploy capital. Those are the questions that will unlock the potential of hydrogen. And this podcast will give you the answers. My name is Paul Rodden, and welcome to the hydrogen podcast.

And so author John Roach continues writing that after the fuel cell generator hit the three megawatt milestone, Microsoft’s James jump started the testing to prove it could perform in real world conditions. He said, I’ve asked two questions. My first one’s been answered, can this technology all integrated together produce the power that I need? My second question is can it perform like a diesel, a diesel engine can produce a lot of power very quickly, and that’s the key. So we’re going to start simulating a datacenter duty cycle, and one of those is a power outage. Now, when a power outage occurs, batteries in the UPS can keep the data center running for several minutes, which is more than sufficient to ramp up a diesel or Hydrogen Generator. Once ramped up. backup generators in theory can keep the datacenter running indefinitely, as long as they have a fuel supply. So starting that June day in Latham, and for the next several weeks, sphinx team ran the three megawatt hydrogen fuel cell system. Through the tests Microsoft uses to qualify diesel generators to prove that it could function reliably, including simulated power outages, and hours long runs. According to Monroe, I’m just tickled.

This is a continuation of the journey that we started back in 2018. And in 2020, when we announced the work that we were going to be doing on the smaller tests, we alluded to the fact that we were going to run a three megawatt test sometime in the future. And that future is now with the prototype testing complete and concept proven plug is focusing on rolling out an optimized commercial version of a high power stationary fuel cell systems that have a smaller footprint, and a more streamlined and polished aesthetic than the one on the pad adjacent to the parking lot and Latham, Microsoft will install one of these second generation fuel cell systems at a research data center where engineers will learn how to work with and deploy the new technology, including the development of hydrogen safety protocols.

The date of first deployment at a live data center is unknown, though it will likely occur at a new data center in a location where air quality standards prohibit diesel generators. This according to James, he continues by saying, I’m going to turn around when the excitement dies down and start to ask, okay, we did one where can I get a thousand? We’ve got a commitment to be completely diesel free. And that supply chain has got to be robust. We’ve got to talk about scale across the entire hydrogen industry. So in dealing with the hydrogen economy, the high cost and technology required to separate hydrogen from other natural compounds store it transported and wring power from it at scale have limited its use. Over the past decade, that calculus has begun to change this according to Darren Painter, a vice president of sales and product management for stationary power plug. The change is driven by advances across the hydrogen ecosystem, coupled by a growing interest in and commitment to sustainability.

For example, abundant and inexpensive wind and solar energy is enabling the cost efficient generation of so called green hydrogen with machines called electrolyzers. These machines operate like a fuel cell, but in reverse, they use the energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. If the energy used to run the electrolyzer is from renewables, then the hydrogen produced is considered green. The hydrogen used during the Latham test was a low carbon blue hydrogen obtained as a byproduct in the industrial production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. PLUG is in the process of scaling up green hydrogen production facilities throughout the US and Europe to meet the growing demand. This again according to painter, Microsoft plans to use only green hydrogen in production data centers, not the other end of the hydrogen ecosystem. Technological advances have led to denser and more efficient fuel cell stacks that combined hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat and water. Again, according to painter, all of that has to happen before you can get into a viable solution at scale. If we would have tried to build this three megawatt system 10 or 15 years ago, I don’t think we could have.

Monroe and his colleagues saw this change in the calculus when they ran the numbers at the start of their hydrogen fuel cell project in 2018. On a per watt basis, Monroe said the power produced from hydrogen fuel cells is well on the way to becoming competitive with power from other sources, such as diesel generators. To accelerate breakthroughs and clean energy solutions. The US Department of Energy announced the first energy Earthshot hydrogen shot in June of 2021. With a goal to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80%. To one US dollar for one kilogram within one decade, a kilogram of hydrogen has roughly the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline. This again, according to Monroe. What’s needed, he added is a catalyst to scale up the production of green hydrogen and fuel cells, which will drive down costs and increase adoption of the technology. Microsoft and other players in the data center industry are uniquely positioned to be that catalyst. That’s according to Jhapa, who in addition to his role as chief environmental officer, is Microsoft’s representative on the hydrogen Council, a global initiative of leading energy transport and industry companies that was formed to promote hydrogens role in the clean energy transition.

Microsoft’s business and sustainability needs for fuel cells, and green hydrogen send a demand signal into the marketplace. Joppa noted. What’s more, if Microsoft invest in hydrogen technology, and the technology works, other companies will feel more confident investing in hydrogen too, and a quote from Joppa. So if we feel confident in using these to ensure continuity of our data center services, that’s a big measure of faith. And so now to talk about scaling up, a robust green hydrogen economy could also help cities transition to 100% renewable energy, again, according to James, that’s because excess energy produced by wind and solar farms can be used to run electrolyzers and affect storing this excess energy and hydrogen. Then when the sun is not shining, and the wind isn’t blowing, this green hydrogen can power fuel cells without generating any carbon emissions.

He continues by saying, we want to produce our cloud off the sun free clean energy. But he also says, well, practically, how do you do that you have to get really good at storing energy. And hydrogen is a great way to do that. James envisions a future where data centers are outfitted with hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen storage tanks and electrolyzers. To convert water molecules into hydrogen with excess renewable energy. During periods of high energy demand, or when the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing, Microsoft can ramp up the fuel cells, taking the datacenter load off the grid, freeing up grid power for others to use. The challenges of bring a version of this vision to reality is what compels the next generation electrical engineer Baldwin to stick with a career in the hydrogen economy, a career path she admits, that was not top of mind before she worked on the fuel cell project. She says I’m excited about the idea of working on something that can make a difference in the world. And hydrogen has a ton of potential to be a huge game changer. When a lot of people think of renewable energy.

They think of wind turbines and solar panels. And they don’t necessarily think of hydrogen. I know I didn’t, I think that will definitely change. Okay, so why did I spend two podcasts discussing this news? Well, well, this isn’t the first fuel cell application dedicated to something like this. And by that I mean powering a facility of some kind, it is certainly the largest. And while there are big corporate names getting associated with hydrogen, the biggest names have a legacy in energy. But this is the world’s global power and technology, fully embracing hydrogen. And so when Microsoft says they want to embrace hydrogen and change the world and drive that hydrogen economy that just escalates the world’s taking notice of hydrogen and making it mainstream. Now this announcement by Microsoft does follow a very special announcement by Netflix from a year ago, where they used hydrogen fuel cells to create on site power for nighttime filming in the UK, which I thought was an absolutely brilliant use of the technology, and one that I think can be scaled up and used around the world relatively easily. Something like this where Microsoft is a whole other level and really does pave the way for other large facilities, such as stadiums, to bring in hydrogen fuel cells for either backup power or just powering In the facility itself and not put such a burden on the grid. Alright, that’s it for me everyone.

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