eBay OKed for wholesale electricity sales

Friday, September 13, 2013

As customer-sited electric generation becomes increasingly economic, major companies outside the energy sector are entering electricity markets.  Federal regulators this month granted eBay Inc.'s request for authorization to sell electricity at wholesale.  What does this mean?

U.S. wholesale electricity markets are generally regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  Most sellers in those markets are regulated as public utilities - but in recent years, the category of "utilities" has expanded beyond the traditional vertically-integrated utility serving retail customers with electricity.  The growth in this sector has come largely from end-users of electricity who have developed on-site generation to meet their needs - and to sell excess power into wholesale markets.  Recent big-name entries into the wholesale electricity market include Google Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. - and now eBay.

On September 5, 2013, the Commission granted eBay market-based rate authority.  This approval enables eBay to sell electric energy, capacity, and other products.  As described in the Commission's order, eBay plans to own and operate a 6 megawatt fuel cell generation facility located at its data center in South Jordan, Utah.  In a June 21 filing, eBay described plans to install five natural gas-fueled "Bloom Box" units at the data center to provide power to run the facility. 

eBay's plans bear some resemblance to the fuel cell system Apple developed at its data center in Maiden, North Carolina.  Data centers consume significant amounts of energy, both for processing and for cooling.  In many cases, on-site generation projects offer data centers a way to cut costs while improving their reliability and their environmental footprint.

Maximizing the cost-effectiveness of a distributed generation project requires it to be sized appropriately for the load to be served.  In some applications, there may be little to no excess power available for sale at wholesale to the grid, while other on-site generation projects may be capable of exporting significant amounts of energy to the grid.  With its market-based rate authorization in hand, eBay stands ready to enter the wholesale market with any excess power its Utah fuel cells produce.

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