Photo: Bloom Energy
High Profile Cleantech
We already knew a little about Bloom Energy and their "Bloom Box" fuel cells because of a segment on CBS's 60 Minutes last Sunday, but many questions were left unanswered. Bloom Energy officially came out of stealth mode today during an event held at the eBay HQ (it was revealed on 60 Minutes that the eBay campus has been getting 15% of its power from Bloom Boxes) with many heavyweight guests (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Powell, Larry Page, etc). So what did they reveal about their technology?
Image: Bloom Energy
Too Early to Tell
Unfortunately, we didn't learn that much new things about the now famous Bloom Boxes. There's a bit more terminology, like for example: The small boxes that produce 1kW are called "Stacks", combined 25 of them into a bigger Bloom Box, and you've got a "Module" (25 kW), four of those in a bigger box and you've got a "System" (100 kW), and anything bigger (up to many megawatts) they call "Solutions".
Bloom Energy's 3 main selling points are: "lower energy costs, clean power, and reliable power."
The first will obviously depend on many things, especially how low they can get production costs for Bloom Box fuel cells. K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, claims that costs could be brought down as low as $3,000 for a stack, but I'll believe it when I see it. In the developing world, decentralized power generation has the benefit that you don't have to build expensive transmission lines, so it might take off faster there.
The second point depends on what you compare it to. If you take the current U.S. grid average, then a Bloom Box running on natural gas would indeed be clean and produce about half the CO2. But compared to cleaner sources like hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, biomass, etc, you'd probably still produce more CO2. But if these fuel cells are deployed first in states that are very dependent on coal and that have access to natural gas (or even better, biogas), they could make a pretty significant difference.
The most promising use of the Bloom Box, in my opinion, is as a backup for a wind or solar power system. The natural gas/biogas fuel cell would be your backup for when the sun or wind doesn't shine. If Bloom Energy really can bring the price down low enough, it could be more affordable than large battery packs.
The third point, reliability, will be entirely dependent on how good the technology is. Fuel cell membranes can be contaminated in various way, so the robustness of the design will be key.
Full data sheet here. Image: Bloom Energy
The most interesting part of today's announcement is probably this data sheet found on Bloom Energy's website.
Some of Bloom Energy's current customers (or beta-testers) are: FedEx, Google, eBay, Coca-Cola, Staples, and Wal-Mart. This will no doubt help legitimize the company in the eye of other big corps, so if the product is actually good and pays for itself in 5-7 years (as they claim, though that probably includes government incentives), I think we can expect a pretty fast adoption rate.