Bloom Energy’s Mini Power Plant: Revolution or Hot Air?

Bloom Energy, a clean energy startup based in Sunnyvale, Calif., officially launches its core product this week. However, the company really had its coming-out party on Sunday’s “60 Minutes,” with executives giving CBS’ Lesley Stahl a first look at a US$700,000 wireless power-plant-in-a-box called, appropriately enough, a “Bloom Box.” Those executives claim Bloom Boxes will bring cheaper, cleaner and greener energy to American homes and businesses.

Images from the “60 Minutes” story show Bloom Boxes small enough to be loaded on forklifts being ferried around the company’s manufacturing facilities. The boxes are already functioning at California-based offices of eBay, Google, Walmart, Staples and FedEx. K.R. Sridhar, Bloom Energy’s CEO who became an entrepreneur following a stint as a NASA engineer, showed an incredulous Stahl two ceramic-and-metal fuel cell stacks — each small enough to fit in his hands — that could power one European home, two American homes or four Asian domiciles. Sridhar then took the side off one of the refrigerator-sized boxes to show its innards and how it works via a blend of natural gas or bio gas and oxygen.

“Fuel goes in, air goes in, out goes electricity,” Sridhar told Stahl.

Green Power — Green as in $

Put another way: New technology goes in, millions of dollars go in — and out goes an awful lot of hype. Bloom Energy was born eight years ago, and despite its shroud of secrecy, the company has managed to generate interest among those who observe the clean energy industry. One of those observers is Founder/Editor Hank Green, and while he remains skeptical about Bloom Energy’s ability to mass-produce Bloom Boxes, he writes this week that “Bloom’s true potential is in super-charging the distributed power system … the box would power the entire house, basically making a connection to the grid a convenience, not a necessity. This may not seem important until we realize that up to half of the power produced at a power plant is lost in transit.”

All that might be done on what Sridhar told Stahl could be had for less than $3,000 for the average household. That doesn’t take into account the millions already spent on development via legendary Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist John Doerr, also interviewed in Stahl’s piece.

Indeed, the problem with existing fuel cell technology has been price, said Enderle Group President and Principal Analyst Rob Enderle. “You can actually buy one for your home, but it will set you back $80,000, and the payback isn’t that great.” A blended solution of solar and fuel cells from Panasonic that’s in the works could be another interesting green energy solution, he added, so Bloom Energy needs to strike while the hype is hot.

“It is very green and in terms of sustaining the human race, it is vastly cleaner than most fuel-based electrical generators. To take off, it needs at least one of two things — the generators have to drop substantially in price, and government subsidies need to be made available to close the gap. If [Bloom Energy] can get the price down rapidly, they have a shot, but with Panasonic entering this space, they don’t have a great deal of time,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld.

The Fuel Cell Conundrum

The Bloom Boxes will still emit CO2, but not nearly as much as traditional power generators, said David Ginger, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Washington. It depends on the source of the fuel going into the boxes, with bio-fuels being the cleaner alternative.

“If that chemical fuel comes from a non-renewable source then you still have most of the problems of CO2 emissions and where we get our fossil fuels. They also claim it can use renewable sources, but where is all that renewable fuel going to come from? This device doesn’t appear to solve the basic supply problem that we will need more solar, more wind, and more nuclear to displace fossil fuel usage, but if it works as advertised, it could help us use what we have more efficiently, which is certainly very important,” Ginger told TechNewsWorld.

The news that’s out so far about Bloom may not generate enough reality to match the hype, according to Stuart Adler, an associate professor of chemical engineering at UW. “The main role of a fuel cell is to increase efficiency in converting a fuel to electricity. There are many companies with products similar to that of Bloom Energy, some of them much further along in manufacturing development. So I’m not sure what’s new here,” Adler told TechNewsWorld.

“For the sake of the environment, I really hope they do have a fuel cell with revolutionary efficiency, but the coverage I’ve seen this morning is short on any technical detail — it is of the ‘trust us, we’re smart, this is revolutionary’ nature,” Ginger said. “Sometimes that can be true, but most scientists would respond with, ‘then show us your performance data on efficiency, cost and lifetime.'”

1 Comment

  • Is the fact that Mr. Bloom actually said, to the question, "Can it use solar?" – "Yes, it can use solar.", as if solar energy is some sort of burnable fuel. Ok, some companies are using trials of the design, and we need to see how that is *really* working out. If its producing a bit of an improvement.. well, then maybe. Even total nuts sometimes come up with good ideas. But, that single statement would still seem to imply to me that, on some level, this guy is a quack.

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