With a regional history of killer tornados - including a 1980 spring evening when seven twisters touched ground in nearby Grand Island - it's no surprise that the first floor of the First National Bank of Omaha's three-level operations plant is constructed 15 feet below grade-level. The nine-year-old facility is also 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 operate without power, and so First National Bank took its disaster preparedness to the next step. Since the first day its present 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 runoff hot water the bank uses to melt snow off sidewalks surrounding the center.
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.
With the economic downturn lancing banks' IT spending, a spike in fuel cell adoption might seem unlikely. However, several industry sources think there might be a new outlook on the technology soon. More federal involvement is expected in greenhouse gas emissions thanks to an incoming administration with renewable and clean energy high on the priority list, adding to the Environmental Protection Agency's steadily growing involvement in initiatives and studies to cut back data center 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, outages and foreign-oil dependence are "a catalyst for growing the technology."
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. And excitement in the industry is building for next-generation solid-oxide fuel cells that may be more commercially viable.
Fuel cells would seem a sublime choice for many data centers given the pressure on CIOs and CTOs to cut costs and emissions. New incentives built into the recent federal banking bailout bill included an extension of alternative energy incentives to encourage the use of fuel cells or microturbines, such as a $3,000 per KwH corporate tax credit that reduces by 30 percent the price tag for projects started through 2016.
And with FNBO, there's a blueprint for operational success. The fuel cell stacks at FNBO have proven to be "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.
Nevertheless, 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.
"It's more expensive, [and] 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. He even admits he might not make the same decision today to outfit the center with fuel cells.
Larger banks already have multiple processing sites, thus negating this benefit, says Hughes, and "small banks would have a terrible time with the initial capital outlay."
Instead of pursuing 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 and increasing energy demands of data centers, say experts. 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, and by EPA estimates will require the addition of 10 power plans nationwide to handle the load.
And as fossil fuel energy prices fluctuate and elevate, there's no amount of virtualization or low-wattage light-bulbs that can both cut costs and adequately address emissions, says Patricia McGinnis, director of corporate banking research at Financial Insights. These initiatives are "not driven by an organization's understanding of climate change and long-term resource constraint," says McGinnis. 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 gain momentum in the near-term - President-elect Barack Obama's energy platform includes them - then "if you don't do something, the whole way you run the 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.