Yay or Meh? Bloom Box Fuel Cell on 60 Minute (Video)


Screen Grabs: CBS/60 Minutes
Update: Bloom Energy Comes Out of the Shadows, Launches the Bloom Box Fuel Cell
Green Savior or One More Fuel Cell Company?
Bloom Energy is a well-funded startup that is starting to come out of stealth mode (with a big launch planned for Wednesday). Its first major media exposure was a 60 Minutes segment on Sunday (you can see the video below) that made some big claims about how this is going to "replace the grid" and produce lots of clean energy. Let's see if this passes the smell test...

The first thing that comes to mind is that CBS News really needs to hire a technology/science consultant. They're all impressed by the fact that "a box" can produce power, while this is basically what all fuel cells have been for almost 200 years. There's also a weird reference to terraforming Mars, which implies that the device on which the Bloom Box is based was a technological breakthrough because it could produce oxygen (producing oxygen isn't hard, the hard part is having enough energy and water).

So What Are We Left With?
So if we distill this breathless segment into the fundamentals, what we have left is a company that claims to be able to make fuel cells inexpensively enough for them to be deployed to residential and commercial customers. Instead of having centralized power plants, you would have distributed micropower.

That sounds good if they can deliver on the low price and if their products are reliable, but so far there's no word on price per kilowatt of capacity and no word on efficiency, the two most important things to know about a fuel cell. Can they really make reliable fuel cells much more cheaply than their competitors? That's impossible to tell from just this video. Maybe we'll know more on Wednesday.

How Green Would it Be?
The green credentials depend on the fuel source. If they use natural gas as a source of hydrogen, CO2 will still be emitted. Probably less than from a gas burning power plant because the efficiency will hopefully be higher and the transmission losses lower (unless their fuel cell is cheap, but very inefficient), but we're still not talking about truly clean power.

If they get the hydrogen from biogas, this could be carbon neutral, but there won't be enough biogas around for everybody.

How to Use a Bloom Box
The most promising use that I can think of is as a "on demand" backup to wind and solar power. In many places, backup generation for renewables is provided by natural gas (unless you have lots of hydro and nuclear available to pick up the slack), so if you're going to use gas, you might as well use it as efficiently as possible.

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