Omaha might seem a placid outpost where the Midwest gives way to the great Plains. In reality, it's place steeped in the psychology of Natural Disaster.

Many in Nebraska's largest city recall the deadly 1975 tornado that destroyed $1 billion worth of property - the most costly windstorm in U.S. history to that date. They grew up hearing about the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado that killed more than 100 Omahans, and lived through the "Night of the Twisters" when seven tornados in three hours touched ground in nearby Grand Island in 1980.

Given this history, it's no surprise that the first floor of the First National Bank's three-level operations plant is constructed 15 feet below grade-level, and the nine-year-old facility is fully cocooned by two external concrete walls that can withstand winds up to 260 MPH.

But even if a bank's walls withstand a storm, the institution can't operated without power, and so First National Bank took its disaster preparedness to the next step. Since the first day its data center opened in 1999, FNBO's back-office has been 100-percent, operationally powered by in-house, hydrogen-based fuel cell technology. "We built the building to be self-contained," says First National CIO and SVP Ken Kucera. "If the whole city of Omaha loses public power, we don't lose it."

Located in a third-floor bunker inside an ice cream truck-sized container, four phosphoric acid fuel cells each churn out up to 225 kilowatts per hour (Kwh); together they supply the center's power, heat and cooling resources - plus backup - that keep the servers humming for the $16 billion bank, which is the nation's fifth-busiest credit card processor. These stationary fuel cells, like the much smaller ones made for vehicles, are a clean technology with no carbon emissions that provide uptime and reliability exceeding what First National got from the local Omaha power district. They are more efficient in producing electricity than combustion sources, and the cells even provide hot water the bank uses to melt snow off sidewalks surrounding the center. "It's been a very stealthy system, and a very robust system," says Dennis Hughes, a lead project manager for FNBO's parent holding company (First National of Nebraska) who was instrumental in the bank's adoption of the fuel cells. "We could lose half [capacity], and still provide our critical needs without even flinching." Hughes and colleague Brenda Dooley, president of First National Buildings, are responsible for the system.

Perhaps more striking than the fact that FNBO's fuel cells have worked so well for so long, is that no bank hasn't followed suit. For all the industry's preoccupation with resiliency, energy costs, green IT, carbon footprints and other inconvenient truths, no other bank has gone "off the grid" with fuel cells. 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, such as data from the non-profit Fuel Cells 2000 at www.fuelcells.org.

With the economic downturn lancing banks' IT spending, a spike in fuel cell adoption, which require hefty upfront costs, might seem unlikely. However, several industry sources think momentum is gathering for more federal involvement in greenhouse gas emissions thanks to an incoming administration with renewable and clean energy high on the priority list, and the Environmental Protection Agency's growing involvement in initiatives and studies to cut back CO2/greenhouse gas emissions.

Also, thinking has evolved around what it means to be green; by focusing on sustainability instead of just conservation, perhaps a few more heads will turn. "One of the things that's driving more of the maturity, certainly of the fuel cells but also all on-site type generation equipment, I would say is power security," says Bill Kosik, the energy and sustainability director for HP Critical Facilities Services. Worries about brownouts and outages, foreign-oil dependence are "a catalyst for growing the technology."

Fuel cells would seem a sublime choice for many data centers given the pressure on CIOs and CTOs to cut costs and emissions. They represent a well-proven, enviro-friendly technology that is generating new buzz and research investment for next-generation auto, home and commercial applications. And in FNBO, there's a blueprint for banks.

Even without regulatory sticks, there are carrots for fuel-cell adoption. The recent federal banking bailout bill included an extension of alternative energy incentives to encourage the use of fuel cells or microturbines, another fast-growing alt-fuel resource. Rob Roche, a products manager for the UTC Power fuel-cell division of United Technologies, says the incentives include a $3,000 per KwH corporate tax credit that reduces by 30 percent the price tag for projects started through 2016 - and that doesn't include state incentives that are surging in California and Connecticut. In the Northeast, meanwhile, companies can sell renewable energy credits. "These credits are trading in the marketplace at 2.5 cents, plus or minus," says Roche. "That's real money with regard to a project that [itself] can be quite consequential."

While FNBO offers a fuel-cell blueprint for banks, the fact is fuel cells have some major cons, exacerbated by today's crisis business environment. High, upfront installation costs and maintenance are still not competitive with utility rates. According to EPA figures, companies would require nearly 16 years to earn payback, even with generous government tax credits and subsidies. First National, which paid $650,000 apiece for its fuel cells and spends the equivalent of 15-cents-per-KwH vs. 3-5 cent rates from public utilities, gets its ROI in part from not needing to build or maintain a new $75 million-plus backup data center. Larger banks already have multiple processing sites, thus negating this benefit, says Hughes, and "small banks would have terrible time with the initial capital outlay."

Another factor to consider is that externally supplied natural gas is still required to produce the hydrogen for the cells, and a modern data center can easily outstrip capacity. What's more, since fuel cells are slow to respond to variable power demands, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) backup is necessary; these are often either dirty (with diesel generators) or expensive.

In FNBO's case, the two fuel cells can back up each other since the banks only needs around 340 KwH, with transitional power provided by magnetic flywheel generators.

Instead of pursing a solution as cutting edge as fuel cells, most data center operations have gone after the "low-hanging fruit" to cut costs and reduce their carbon footprints, such as server virtualization, renewable energies, and paperless initiatives. Meanwhile, banks' investments in Web communications have diminished corporate travel, and they have constructed more new buildings and centers under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified guidelines.

Citigroup, for example, is spending nearly $700 million on two new LEED-certified processing centers in Texas and Germany that utilize pollution controls and water reduction technology; it's part of the bank's plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by 10 percent worldwide. Elsewhere, HSBC has been carbon neutral since 2005, and Wells Fargo launched a strategy to purchase enough renewable wind energy credits to offset 40 percent of its electricity use.

Though laudable and massive, these investments will not address the long-term energy demands of data centers. Financial transactions, Internet content, electronic medical records, and post-9/11 data backup requirements are all escalating data center growth. In data centers' physical spaces, energy requirements have dropped with virtualization, so fewer servers are taking up less real estate. But those servers are also running hotter and cost more to keep cool.

According to the EPA, servers and data centers in the U.S. more than doubled electricity usage from 2000 to 2006 - gobbling up 61 billion KwH, or 4.5 percent of the nation's electricity. Consumption is likely to double again by 2012. Given unchecked usage growth, the EPA last year estimated the electricity appetite of data center servers will approach 12 gigawatts by 2011, and require an additional 10 power plants nationwide to handle the load.

Kosik says some of the data center facilities HP is helping to design "easily" tally 5-to-10 megawatts of production capacity, which would require multiple cell stacks to achieve 100 percent coverage. And that's not a true representation of the demand says Kosik. "You also have a cooling system that can add 50 to 70 percent on top of that."

The industry's current approach to green technology, such as virtualization, "is not driven by an organization's understanding of climate change and long-term resource constraint," says Patricia McGinnis, director of corporate banking research at Financial Insights. The end goal of green isn't to stretch resources, but change them.

If worldwide emissions standards continue to evolve, or capping and trading carbon emission offsets gains momentum in the near-term-President-elect Obama's energy platform includes them-then "if you don't do something, the whole way you run business is now going to get more expensive," says McGinnis. Both opportunity and cost are at stake, and "the U.S. banking industry has a limited understanding of that," she adds.

Adds Ron Croce, COO of alternative power distribution firm Validus Systems: "If I can harvest 30-to-40 percent savings in virtualization, I'm going to do that first...but where do they get the next 20 percent?"

That might be where First National's experience may be instructive. "I know that fuel cell technology continues to evolve, and they seem to be coming close to price parity with conventional fossil fuel sources. But it is not anything we see any other bank talking about," McGinnis says.

Pricing and costs are things everyone must consider these days. Bank IT directors until now haven't worried much about the resources coming through the grid. "The biggest disconnect-and it's not just with banks-is the IT department does not pay the utility bill," says Rosemarie Szostak, an Atlanta-based analyst with Nerac, a Connecticut innovation consultancy. "They are not cognizant of how much energy that they are actually chewing up."

First National Bank of Omaha earns extra revenue in the summer selling its excess capacity to the Omaha public utility-up to two megawatts. Hughes says the bank turns down numerous requests to sell its carbon credits. "We don't want to be associated with a polluter," he says.

According to the industry-backed U.S. Fuel Cell Council, global sales of all fuel cell types, including for vehicles, were up 10 percent in 2006 to $387 million; research spending hit $829 million, growing at a four percent clip.

That research is how many in the industry hope fuel cells will begin narrowing its economic disadvantage, perhaps within the next 18 months. The phosphoric-acid fuel cells at FNB are highly efficient, but are the Model T's of fuel cells compared to forthcoming proton-exchange membrane or solid-oxide types.

One stealth startup in California, Bloom Energy, is reportedly just a few years from a next-generation solid-oxide fuel cell that may be advanced enough, and affordable enough, to power homes. "Solid oxide fuel cells are the next generation," says Szostak. "Siemens is looking at tubular solid oxide cells, and they're talking about turning that into commercial reality in 2010-2011."

Kucera believes First National will remain a lone wolf for a while longer. Like hybrid vehicles with a sticker price that far exceeds the fuel savings over a standard high-mileage model, the fuel cell is still a relative luxury that has a lengthy ROI. "It's more expensive, it limits you with a cap on buying 'x' amount of fuel cells, which produces 'x' amount of power," Kucera says. "You're kind of locked in unless you make additional investments in fuel cells," which today can run upwards of $850,000 each.

Kucera admits he might not make the same decision today. Without regulatory or business pressures, banks will have difficulty with the cost-benefit analysis. Sitting in his 20th floor office, Kucera can look out across downtown Omaha to a coal-burning power plant that is spewing white smoke. "There's a lot more pressure [on polluters] to deal with clean coal than there is to deal with the emissions, or the electricity use by data centers, from my perspective."

But his fuel cells definitely reduce his worry load. FNBO is insulated against the next twister and the next spike in electricity costs. "We've got additional capacity that is unused today," Kucera says. "In our cost structure, if the price of electricity goes up by threefold, it doesn't affect me."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.