NorthC, the largest regional data centre company in the Netherlands, is taking an important new step towards further sustainability improvements.
The company’s facility in Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, will become the first data centre in Europe to install fuel cells that run on green hydrogen (H2), with the hope that it will result in considerable reductions in CO2 emissions. NorthC is investigating whether this hydrogen technology can also be applied in the company’s other data centres.
There is a strong debate about the sustainability of data centres. Energy consumption is a key consideration, but at the same time, the demand for data centre services is increasing. The growth required for this can only be achieved in a sustainable way by looking at alternative forms of energy. The European data centre sector has agreed to achieve entirely climate-neutral operations by 2030, with hydrogen cells a promising technology that could be utilised to achieve this goal.
Data centres usually have several emergency power generators that run on diesel to guarantee the availability of the digital services on which our society depends in the event of a power failure. Although these diesel generators are rarely actually needed, they should be checked regularly – on a monthly basis – to ensure that they are working correctly. This process results in the consumption of diesel fuel and, with a large number of emergency power generators, that represents a considerable amount of diesel.
The 500 KW hydrogen cell module that will be installed in the new NorthC data centre in Groningen will save tens of thousands of litres of diesel on an annual basis. Burning this amount of diesel would produce more than 78,000 kilograms (78 tons) of CO2, equal to 24 cars driving the average number of kilometres for Dutch people (32 km per day) for a year, or 20,000 smartphones being charged every day for a year. In contrast, only water (H2O) is released when green hydrogen is burned, and additional hydrogen modules can be added as needed.
“The data centre industry has a responsibility to ensure that we operate as sustainably as possible,” said Jarno Bloem, COO at NorthC Datacenters. “For example, all our regional data centres run entirely on green power. We are also actively engaged in additional sustainability initiatives, such as projects that use the residual heat from our data centres to heat homes and businesses in the area.
“An important next step is to switch from emergency power generators that run on diesel to sustainable alternatives. We believe that green hydrogen offers the best possibilities in this respect and have therefore entered into a partnership with Nedstack – one of the frontrunners in the field of large hydrogen cells.”
The hydrogen cells that will be installed in the Groningen data centre are more expensive than traditional generators that run on diesel. However, the costs are expected to fall rapidly because of increasing fuel prices and the further development and growth of the hydrogen sector – particularly in the Groningen region. Additionally, hydrogen cells have a very long service life of 20 years or more.
For existing generators that run on diesel, NorthC is investigating whether it is possible and cost-effective to make them suitable for hydrogen. While this is less efficient than hydrogen fuel cells, which convert H2 directly into electrical energy, it would significantly reduce emissions by more than 80 per cent and further contribute to sustainability.
Bloem concluded: “With these hydrogen cells, our data centre in Groningen becomes a European first for emergency power supplies. We are now going to investigate if we can also apply this technology in our other data centres, initially mainly in new branches or expansions of existing branches.
“The ultimate goal, of course, is to use green hydrogen as a primary power supply, but that is still something to address in the future. An important condition is a drop in the costs of hydrogen. This requires subsidies and an increase in scale. But given the enormous advantages that this form of energy offers, I am convinced that it is just a matter of time.”
The hydrogen cells in Groningen are expected to be operational by the middle of June.