Amazon fuel cells to use natural gas for data centers, increasing the carbon footprint

Amazon wants to use natural gas fuel cells to power at least three and possibly as many as seven of its data centers in Oregon, which according to authorities would have an even greater impact on climate change than the grid electricity Amazon has been using.

Amazon suggests using fuel cell technology, which will oxidize the fossil fuel to produce electricity, as opposed to a conventional power station, which burns natural gas to turn a turbine.

Amazon stated in a written statement, “We are investing in fuel cells as a method to power a small number of our locations in Oregon. This technology opens the door for less carbon-intensive solutions in the area, and we constantly innovate to reduce our impact on our neighbors, local resources, and the environment.

State regulators use a different description. Although the regulators’ remarks regarding Amazon’s plan show that the fuel cells don’t lower emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas causing climate change, they can reduce pollutants that might cause localized air quality hazards.

In reality, according to state data, the fuel cells would raise Amazon’s carbon footprint in the area since they would decrease the usage of clean hydropower in the data centers.

Amazon has previously stated that it intends “to purchase 100% renewable energy” by 2025 for its operations. The fuel cells imply that Amazon might be making a U-turn in Oregon.

“Does (Amazon) really believe we won’t look into it and discover the source of their electricity? The former chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission and a consultant for the National Resources Defense Council, Angus Duncan, called that “silly.”

Approximately 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide would be emitted each year by the tech giant’s fuel cells, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. That indicates that three Amazon data centers would produce 25% of the carbon emissions of the neighboring gas-fired power plant operated by Portland General Electric as a whole.

The Oregon Legislature is considering a clean energy law that would compel data centers and bitcoin miners to adhere to the same emissions rules as major electrical utilities, which the fuel cells would conflict with.

Duncan remarked, “If they want to use fuel cells there, then let them use fuel cells there, but let them limit themselves to no more liberal an emissions framework than the investor-owned utilities have agreed to.” As far as I’m concerned, Amazon “can receive (electricity) from a magic globe. That isn’t the problem. Their emissions are the problem.

Many of the biggest tech businesses in the country have huge data center clusters in Oregon. They are drawn by the relatively low cost of water, and power, large rural property parcels, and tax benefits. Amazon avoided $53 million in property taxes last year on its data centers in Morrow County and another $23 million on data centers in neighboring Umatilla County because of these exemptions.

To power and maintain the cooling of their computers, data centers require enormous amounts of electricity. To supply clean energy for their operations, Facebook and Apple have funded solar or wind installations close to their data centers in Prineville.

However, Amazon uses energy from Umatilla Electric Cooperative, a local utility, to power its data facilities in Morrow County. 160 miles up the Columbia River from Portland, in a county with 12,000 population, Amazon maintains a collection of four huge data centers.

The cooperative must purchase electricity on the open market to satisfy Amazon’s needs because it has used up the comparatively tiny amount of hydroelectricity it had been given by the Bonneville Power Administration. Natural gas, a fossil fuel with a relatively high carbon footprint, is used to create the majority of that electricity.

Since 2018, a significant increase in local carbon emissions has coincided with Amazon’s expanding footprint in Morrow County.

According to Amazon’s submissions to the state, it initially informed the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality about its fuel cell ambitions last summer.

According to the documents, Amazon plans to install fuel cells at three data centers by the end of August, with the possibility of installing fuel cells at four additional nearby locations in the future. They would mark Amazon’s first usage of this technology in a data center anywhere in the globe and be the first fuel cells of this kind in Oregon.

According to the papers, Bloom Energy, a California-based business, would supply Amazon with fuel cells. Bloom Energy claims in its filings that its fuel cells would deliver dependable power without tying Amazon to a long-term contract.

On their website, Bloom Energy promotes fuel cells as a solution to use locally generated power to get around limited electrical transmission lines. In Morrow County, Amazon intends to construct up to five new data centers.

According to a permit application that Amazon’s experts sent to the state, fuel cell technology produces energy “by exploiting an electrochemical interaction between hydrogen from natural gas fuel and oxygen in the ambient air.”

According to the documents, each of Amazon’s fuel cell plants is rated at 24.3 megawatts. That is only slightly less than the 25-megawatt cap on new natural gas-fired power plants that the Oregon Legislature enacted in a significant climate law passed in 2021.

Amazon doesn’t disclose the amount of electricity used at specific data centers, so it’s unclear how much carbon dioxide is produced by the company’s current power supply. It’s also unclear how much the fuel cells will cost in comparison to the electricity Umatilla Electric provides to the business.

The Oregon DEQ claims that emissions from oxidizing fuel cells are “about the same as combustion of natural gas” in a study on Amazon’s proposal.

According to DEQ calculations, Amazon’s change would result in an overall rise in the company’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because hydropower, which has no effect on the climate, is included in Umatilla Electric’s power mix, whereas the fuel cells are totally dependent on natural gas. (According to the DEQ, the greenhouse gas intensity of fuel cells is 61% higher than that of Umatilla Electric power’s typical emissions.

Other contaminants linked to the burning of natural gas are not released by fuel cells. Although they do not significantly contribute to climate change, these pollutants can have a negative impact on the air quality in the vicinity of a power station.

According to Bloom, their fuel cells are “basically feedstock neutral,” meaning they could be modified to run on more environmentally friendly fuels like hydrogen or renewable natural gas, which would lessen their influence on the environment. The Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association, which is encouraging attempts to take part in a federal drive to develop “hydrogen hubs” across the nation, has a representative from Amazon on its board of directors.

However, because hydrogen extraction is costly and energy-intensive, hydrogen fuel cells aren’t commonly employed today. Amazon claims that its Oregon fuel cells provide a “pathway towards less carbon-intensive solutions,” yet its state filings make no mention of a switch to hydrogen. It doesn’t seem like it will switch to a cleaner fuel very soon, even if it does.

According to Amazon’s plans, the corporation intends to link to the Gas Transmission Northwest pipeline, which transports natural gas from British Columbia via Oregon to California, in order to supply its data centers with the fuel.

To connect its data centers to spurs off the main GTN pipeline, Amazon would construct three connectors, each a little over a mile long. The initial outlay shows that Amazon intends to use those gas pipelines for a considerable amount of time.

In Morrow County, where farmers and other landowners have complained about the wires crossing their property, the subject of power lines to supply Amazon data centers has been divisive. Gas pipelines would need to pass through fields to get to Amazon’s data centers, which could cause some of the same problems.

The owners of the GTN pipeline, which transports fracking-obtained natural gas from Canada, are looking to increase its capacity to carry more gas. Attorneys general in Oregon, Washington, and California attempted to stop the expansion last summer, citing concerns about global warming.

According to Columbia Riverkeeper staff attorney Audrey Leonard, Amazon’s plans will increase pressure on the pipeline and demand for natural gas. She claimed that’s alarming given the effects fracking has on the ecosystem near gas drilling sites and the role natural gas plays in climate change.

Leonard argued that this was yet another argument against sending more fracking-related gas to the GTN pipeline and in favor of pushing Big Tech to adhere to clean energy standards.

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