The developers behind a massive 600MW data center campus being planned for east London, UK, say it could house a hydrogen fuel cell energy generation plant.

Digital Reef is planning to build the campus on a 175-acre Green Belt site on Dunnings Lane and Fen Road in the London borough of Havering. First proposed in 2022, it would comprise 12 buildings and cost £5.3 billion ($5.97bn) to build. The scheme could see over 1,200 jobs created in Havering.

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A render of Digital Reef's planned Havering campus – Reef Group

The campus has yet to receive planning approval and has faced opposition from residents and environmental campaigners.

When the scheme was first announced, Digital Reef claimed it was developing a “zero carbon facility,” and in a project update delivered to Havering Borough Council last month, it revealed details of some of the measures it plans to put in place to keep the site’s carbon footprint down.

The campus will house a 64,000 sq ft (6,000 sqm) hydrogen fuel cell energy generation plant. These fuel cells are able to take hydrogen and combine it with air to produce electricity, and the technology is seen as a potentially promising solution to the growing energy needs of data centers and the wider power grid. Digital Reef does not specify how it will obtain hydrogen for the system, or how much power it is expected to generate.

Backup power generators at the data center campus will run on hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO), rather than diesel, the document says. The company had previously disclosed that it plans to recover heat from the data halls so that it can be used by local farmers, and says it will reserve 30,100 sq ft (2,800 sqm) of space for equipment needed to send heat to a district heating system. East London is home to several district heating schemes.

Digital Reef hopes to obtain planning permission via a Local Development Order (LDO), an expedited planning process designed for large projects. LDOs must be approved by a government minister before they can come into force.

The development would see a large “ecology park” built at the site for use by residents. The council has already agreed to support the project, but it has been criticized by environmental group the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which said in 2022 it was "appalled" by the scheme and said it would cause “massive environmental damage.”

Ian Pirie, the co-ordinator of climate action group Havering Friends of the Earth, said many residents “totally oppose” the plans.

In comments to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Pirie said: “The data center will take between ten and twelve years to build, and the impact of lorries during construction will be intolerable in these quiet country lanes."

Pirie added: “If this development is allowed, it will set a precedent, and we would then lose more and more of our Green Belt. The Green Belt forms the lungs of our city, providing clean air as well as rich wildlife.”

Founded in 2002, Digital Reef develops retail, leisure, hotel, workplace, and residential projects. While not traditionally known for data centers, it is also working on a plan for a 23-hectare technology and data center park in Didcot, Oxfordshire. This would create up to 110,000 sqm (1.18 million sq ft) of data center development, and up to 20,000 sqm (215,000 sq ft) of battery storage.