Fujitsu America has become the first Silicon Valley company to install a hydrogen fuel cell to provide power to its data centre and other operations. The fuel cell only provides half of the data centre's cooling electricity needs and the company said that it will take three and a half years to get a return on the investment. Is this economically justified?

A fuel cell generates electricity and heat as by-products of an electro-chemical reaction between fuel and an oxidant in the presence of a catalyst or electrolyte. As long as fuel and oxidant (reactants) flows in and the reaction product flows out then electricity production is continuous. Various combinations of fuel and reactant are possible.

Fujitsu is using UTC's PureCell 200 which uses natural gas as a fuel and delivers 200kW, and 870,000 Btu/hour of heat for combined heat and power applications. The 90 percent remainder of the electricity for Fujitsu's 1,200-person facility in Sunnyvale, needed comes from Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) via the California state electricity grid. Much of the heat produced by the fuel cell can't be used by Fujitsu and is just vented away.

Tetsuo Urano, Fujitsu America's head of American operations, said: “With a payback of about three and a half years and a lifespan of about 15 years, hydrogen power is an excellent investment for the company." He added that it was a: "significant and financially responsible investment in reducing harmful impacts on the environment, with the ultimate goal of reversing global warming."

PG&E reportedly provided a half million dollars in electricity bill rebates to Fujitsu for installing the plant.Neither Fujitsu nor UTC have provided an actual price for the fuel cell.

The cost of the PureCell 200 is around $5,500/kW according to the California Energy Commission, with its installed cost being about $1.1 million. The commission says the cost of fuel cells is very high compared to those of other generating technologies.

Fujitsu states that the fuel cell produces 35 percent less CO2 per megawatt-hour than the average fossil fuel-based power plant, and approximately 4,000 lbs per year less NOx (Nitrous Oxide), the equivalent of taking more than 100 average passenger cars off the road.

This is possibly a misleading statistic. PG&E uses many hydro-electric generating plants, renewable generators and a nuclear facility for 58 percent of its electricity generation, so its average carbon footprint per power-plant is a lot less than an average fossil fuel-based one.

We could estimate that it is about half and, in that case, Fujitsu America is paying $314,286 annually for three and a half years to take 50 cars off the road; $6,286 per car. After that the fuel cell will be saving the company money.

Automated PC power switch off product supplier Verdiem estimates that use of its products save carbon emissions equivalent to taking 8,000 cars off the road annually; our estimated Fujitsu fuel cell-based car removal figure is 0.625 percent of this.

Fujitsu has several other green credentials and initiatives, such as meeting the ROHS standard, recyclng programmes, having 16 notebook and tablet products with EPEAT ratings, and more.