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1/18/2009
12:44 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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$16B Bank Goes Off The Grid With Hydrogen Fuel Cells

A search on "hydrogen fuel cells" turns up a blend of results, including some puzzlers (e.g., from September 2007, a hydrogen fuel cell bicycle). But add the words "data center" to the search and you'll find that $16 billion First National Bank of Omaha and its data center are in their 10th year of being completely powered by hydrogen fuel cells and are -- literally -- off the grid.

A search on "hydrogen fuel cells" turns up a blend of results, including some puzzlers (e.g., from September 2007, a hydrogen fuel cell bicycle). But add the words "data center" to the search and you'll find that $16 billion First National Bank of Omaha and its data center are in their 10th year of being completely powered by hydrogen fuel cells and are -- literally -- off the grid.According to a recent article in U.S. Banker, First National CIO and senior VP Ken Kucera says, "If the whole city of Omaha loses public power, we don't lose it." And in the decade since its innovative data-center project went live, Kucera said, the performance has been flawless:

"Perhaps more striking than the fact that FNBO has never had an outage with fuel cells is that no banks have followed suit. For all the industry's preoccupation with resiliency, energy costs, green IT, carbon footprints and inconvenient truths, no other bank has gone 'off the grid' with fuel cells due to their high upfront costs and long-term ROI (as much as 16 years, including generous public subsidies). In fact, only a handful of data centers from any industry run their mission-critical operations on fuel cells, according to several alternative energy experts who cull government and industry resource data."

So it would seem that, to paraphrase Strother Martin from "Cool Hand Luke," what we have here is a failure to innovate. Maybe that's a result of unattractive or nonexistent ROI, as the excerpt above mentions, but I'm willing to bet the more likely factor is the simple lack of awareness of hydrogen fuel cells as a viable alternative. As I noted at the top, a glance through search results on that topic doesn't exactly make for scintillating reading -- although I would recommend this nice catch-all site from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But that's exactly the type of environment that helps innovative companies seize competitive advantage by breaking out of group-think and taking some carefully evaluated risks. And First National's 10-year track record shows that hydrogen fuel cells are indeed a viable solution for data centers, particularly in these hyper-sensitive times of "global warming" claims and counter-claims.

In a blog post about the U.S. Banker article, Rich Miller of DataCenterKnowledge.com cites two vendors that are offering data-center power solutions using hydrogen fuel cells: APC and UTC.

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