Richard Meyer The Tech Sector’s Natural Gas Play

Two household names in the technology world are integrating natural gas technology and infrastructure into their clean energy plans.

First up is the Microsoft Corporation, which announced that it is constructing a first-of-its-kind natural gas datacenter. In partnership with McKinstry and Cummins, the tech giant will install a 20-rack datacenter in Seattle, WA that utilizes natural gas fuel cells. The company says this approach could transform how it powers its servers.

On the company’s blog, Christian Belady, General Manager, and Sean James, Principal, Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations, describe the benefits:

“This stark and simple design significantly reduces the amount of energy lost in power generation, transmission and power conversion. Right now, datacenters are powered by the electrical grid, which flows from a power plant, through multiple substations and transmission lines, and then must be converted into the right voltage for a datacenter before we can use it. With fuel cells powered directly from the natural gas line, we cut out all those steps, and remove the energy losses that occur through this long transmission process as seen below.”

The benefits also extend to energy reliability and resiliency. Belady and James continue:

“With fewer pieces in the supply chain, there are fewer potential points of failure. That helps improve the reliability of our power supply and our datacenters. And, of course, with this simplification comes a reduction in cost. Eliminating electrical distribution, power conditioning, and backup infrastructure makes a datacenter easier and less expensive to build, operate and manage.”

Make sure to keep an eye on this pilot project.

Next up is Apple, which is putting the finishing touches on its new corporate headquarters in Cupertino, CA.

Apple has announced that its new campus, the 175-acre Apple Park, is to be run on 100 percent renewable energy.

How exactly does the company accomplish this? The new campus will feature on-site rooftop solar and a mix of offsite purchases and credits. However, a closer examination of its plans shows that natural gas infrastructure is how Apple gets to 100 percent.

The company will utilize four megawatts of baseload biogas fuel cells to power its facilities. The efficient on-site generators will provide reliable power to its office, datacenters and energy-intensive research and development facilities while remaining carbon neutral.

The fuel cells also work as a natural pairing with the on-site 17-megawatt rooftop solar installation, which together will provide 75 percent of the facilities’ total electricity needs.

Apple’s Environmental Impact Report documents describe how the fuel cells will be powered:

“Directed biogas will be delivered by an off-site renewable biogas producer by means of the existing natural gas pipeline. As with electricity, there is no means of ensuring the actual molecules of biogas are consumed at the customer’s site. Thus, the gas may not be physically delivered to the site, as the biogas may actually be utilized at another location along the pipeline route (requiring the use of natural gas on the project site).”

In other words, Apple will utilize the existing natural gas utility distribution system to power its on-site fuel cells but will purchase biogas credits to reach its renewables goal.

Both projects offer unique insights into different ways that large companies are trying to meet their environmental goals while maintaining energy reliability. In both cases, on-site natural gas provides an energy backbone onto which renewables are integrated. I, for one, will be watching how both projects progress with interest.

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