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Straits Times: Data centers to green operations with hydrogen

Empyrion DC turns to hydrogen to meet net-zero carbon emission commitments

April 22, 2023 at 7:00:00 PM

SINGAPORE – Data centres here are turning to hydrogen power, now that new sustainability criteria are in place to ensure that the growth of server farms is consistent with Singapore’s commitments to reach net-zero carbon emission by 2050. 

Traditional data centres require a lot of electricity to run servers and other hardware to store, process and transit large amounts of organisations’ data, such as for cyber security, cloud computing and e-commerce. The computing equipment generates a lot of heat, making energy and water-guzzling cooling systems necessary.

Keppel Data Centres told The Straits Times that it is looking to build a floating data centre park with its partners, which will be over 30ha in size and could be ready in phases from 2026.

It is considering using liquefied and piped gaseous hydrogen, which could be imported from countries in the region. In the longer term, the company would be looking to power the facility with green hydrogen.

The company said that sustainable practices at its data centre are in step with it big-tech clients’ focus on ensuring net-zero emissions, or to become carbon-negative. Carbon-negative companies generate less greenhouse gases than they help remove from the environment, such as through carbon offset projects.

Hydrogen is considered a cleaner fuel as it produces no planet-warming carbon dioxide when burned. However, it is only considered green if the hydrogen is created in a way that generates zero emissions, such as through renewable energy like solar.

The Government placed a moratorium on new data centres on state land in 2019. New criteria that took effect in July 2022, when the moratorium was lifted, include greener operations, such as using more sustainable energy, more efficient cooling methods, and greater energy efficiency.  

These requirements kicked in under a pilot for new data centres that is expected to have a total allocated capacity of around 60 megawatts (MW). The Government will announce successful applicants by June 2023. Keppel declined to say if its offshore data centre is under this pilot programme.

Singapore had more than 70 operational data centres by 2021, which account for about 7 per cent of the country’s electricity consumption.

Empyrion DC, owned by investment firm Seraya Partners, has submitted a proposal to build a data centre powered by low-carbon hydrogen.

Seraya Partners said it intends to have hydrogen supplied to a Singapore power-generating facility to generate electricity that is fed into the national grid, which its data centre will plug into.

United States-based digital infrastructure firm Equinix announced in September 2022 that it is collaborating with the National University of Singapore to test hydrogen fuel cells as a power source for data centres in Singapore.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. They can be used to power electric cars – a tank of 5.6kg of hydrogen can be converted into 100kW of electricity, sufficient to travel around 700km.

Depending on a data centre’s size, a network of hydrogen fuel cells, or much larger ones about 100 to 1,000 times the size of a vehicle fuel cell, would be needed to supply 10MW to 100MW of power.

Ms Deborah Seibold Egeland, Asia-Pacific environmental regional solutions director at consultancy firm Jacobs, said her company recently helped two global technology firms evaluate the viability of using hydrogen fuel cells to power their data centres, or for use as back-up power systems. 

With low-carbon hydrogen contributing up to 50 per cent of Singapore’s energy needs, one key way the Government can enhance hydrogen adoption is by using “advanced hydrogen technologies” that are almost commercially ready through pathfinder projects, she noted.

“I think that hydrogen-powered data centres would be a great option for a pathfinder project,” she said.

“If more technology companies invest in the infrastructure to generate and transport low-carbon hydrogen, it would allow green hydrogen projects to come to market quicker.”

Professor Wen Yonggang, chief scientist of Red Dot Analytics, said some of the firm’s collaborators are exploring hydrogen-powered data centres but declined to provide details citing confidentiality. The firm, a spin-off from the Nanyang Technological University, focuses on using artificial intelligence to improve the sustainability of infrastructure, including helping data centres become more energy efficient.

Hydrogen could reduce the carbon footprint of data centres in Singapore, but considerations include the availability of infrastructure for producing, storing and transporting hydrogen, as well as the cost-effectiveness of using hydrogen compared with other sources of energy, Prof Wen said.

A spokesman for the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association of Singapore said green hydrogen could be utilised for the data centre through clean electricity produced via a combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT), which is distributed through the national grid or a hydrogen fuel cell system.

Fuel cells, however, are expensive due to the use of precious metals used for the catalyst, which is needed for the reaction between oxygen and hydrogen.

But these cells are commercially ready and easily scalable. In addition, water and heat produced from the fuel cell can be recovered for other purposes such as running adsorption chillers for cooling purposes.

“More research and development would need to be carried out to explore lower-cost materials and ways to improve the efficiencies of the CCGTs and hydrogen fuel cell systems,” the spokesman added. The best-case scenario is for green hydrogen to be readily available in its gaseous form and transported to Singapore via pipelines for immediate use, he said.

Singapore is planning to study the possibility of importing hydrogen from nearby countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

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