Tech Titans Lend Credibility to Bloom Box Hype

After years of keeping everyone in the dark about its solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology, Bloom Energy officially brought its first product out into the sunlight Wednesday with a media event launching its Bloom Energy Server, a cleantech refrigerator-sized power plant for homes and businesses.

Flanked by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and famed technology venture capitalist John Doerr, Bloom CEO and cofounder K.R. Sridhar used the San Jose, Calif., headquarters of one of its first customers, eBay, as the backdrop for announcing the availability of what it’s calling a greener and cheaper way to wean consumers and businesses off power grids and fossil fuels.

“Bloom Energy is dedicated to making clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone in the world,” Sridhar said. “We believe that we can have the same kind of impact on energy that the mobile phone had on communications. Just as cellphones circumvented landlines to proliferate telephony, Bloom Energy will enable the adoption of distributed power as a smarter, localized energy source.”

Bloom’s first customers, in addition to eBay: Bank of America, the Coca-Cola Company, Cox Enterprises, FedEx, Google, Staples and Walmart. All are already using Energy Servers to power some of their offices or have plans to do so in the near future. eBay installed five of the servers last summer and estimates they have saved the company US$100,000 in electricity costs.

A single Energy Server, believed to cost anywhere from $700,000 to $800,000 each, can take in natural gas or biofuel, mix them with oxygen and the company’s SOFC technology — ceramic plates coated with special green and black paint — and generate 100 kilowatts of electricity with a low carbon footprint.

What’s So New With Bloom?

The Energy Servers will pay down their capital costs over the first 3 to 5 years of use, according to Bloom, and can cut emissions by 40 to 100 percent depending on whether a fossil fuel or a biofuel like methane is used (eBay says it will soon switch from natural gas to methane from an Oklahoma landfill for its Energy Servers).

Fuel cell technology has been around for decades, with several companies large and small working on finding a cheaper alternative to traditional electricity generation. However, Bloom believes it’s hit on a winning formula for mainstream acceptance — lower-cost materials, greater efficiency in converting fuel to electricity, being able to use renewable or traditional fuels and easier deployment/maintenance.

Can it be done? It would be great to see Bloom succeed, said Stuart Adler, associate professor at the University of Washington’s department of chemical engineering, “but what materials are they using? How are they doing the fabricating, which affects the costs of the materials? All of this can be very expensive,” Adler told TechNewsWorld. “Westinghouse has battled this thing (SOFCs) for 40 years, plus trying to make large-scale power systems. The reason they weren’t successful was the path they chose for manufacturing was extraordinarily expensive. What you see today are a number of companies pursuing low-cost techniques. Bloom Energy is not unique in that regard — they are one of several that have popped up in the last 10 years chasing technologies that run on lower temperatures and are designed for distributed energy.”

The U.S. vs. the World

Most of those companies, Alder said, are based in Europe and Japan, “where they tend to take a fairly non-political, long-term view of energy and energy technology.” He cites Ceres Power in the UK and Tokyo Gas as examples of companies that have been working on SOFCs while the U.S. was trying to refine hydrogen-based alternative fuel systems or polymer-based fuel cells.

In the U.S., Bloom competes with companies like Versa Power, based in Colorado, and UTC Power in Connecticut. However, Sridhar managed to attract the attention of “60 Minutes,” which ran a story on his so-called Bloom Boxes last weekend in advance of the Wednesday launch. So while Sridhar may have more going for him right now with marketing and publicity, he’s also throwing a 100-kilowatt media spotlight on his entire industry.

“He might have some unique extra ingredient that he throws in, or some special way of making the materials that bring the cost down in a way that other people haven’t figured out how to do yet,” Adler said. “I’m glad there’s visibility for this area, which has needed visibility for a very long time. He’s going to lift the boat for everybody.”

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