Ebay, the online auction house known for helping millions to buy and sell their stuff, made a savvy purchase of its own on Thursday: it bought fuel cells from Bloom Energy (like those pictured) to power one of its data centres in the United States.

More importantly – it’s setting up those fuel cells in a way that allows the data centre to run independently from the electricity grid, which in Utah is heavily powered by coal, the fossil fuel that destroys communities and causes climate change.

Bloom Energy Fuel Cells

Other technology companies such as Apple have invested in fuel cells at data centres as well. What makes eBay’s move unique is that its fuel cells will be directly powering its data centre as its primary energy source, meaning it will be able to operate independently from the electricity grid.

We had criticised eBay back in 2010 for siting its data centre in Utah, where 82% of the grid is powered by coal, according to US EPA eGrid figures.

Then last year, eBay effectively lobbied the state government to change the law for the right to build its own renewable energy facilities. That’s a great example of the kind of advocacy that IT companies can do at the state and federal level for more renewable energy. Now, eBay has put its money where its mouth is by moving its facility onto fuel cells and off the coal-fired grid.

For the rest of the sector – including companies such as Amazon and Microsoft that still rely heavily on the coal-fired electricity grid – the lesson here is that there are many options to say no to coal and yes to clean energy leadership.

  • They could go off-grid by using fuel cells like eBay
  • Even better, they could avoid the problem of coal in the first place by committing to build data centres where the grid is already green, as Facebook has done
  • They could directly invest in renewable energy through power purchase agreements, as Google has done with wind power in the US Midwest
  • They could lobby and push their electric utilities to provide cleaner energy, as Facebook has committed to doing.

What Amazon, Microsoft and others cannot do is continue to power their 21st century clouds with 19th century coal power – not when there are so many options to quit coal at their fingertips.

Photo credit: Bloom Energy