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Production facility

Installation at eBay's offices  (Source: Bloom Energy)
Bloom Energy claims that it will be an unstoppable force in the alternative energy business and its got huge corporate support

The future of energy is now, says Bloom Energy.  At a press conference today, it unveiled its surprisingly small fuel cell "solutions" boxes. The so-called "Bloom Energy Servers" – which are about as tall as an adult male – can use virtually any hydrocarbon fuel (methane, propane, ethanol, gasoline, liquified coal) and produce energy twice as efficiently as a coal plant.  Bloom Energy is trying to revolutionize the power generation industry – the key is cutting out the middle-man (power transmission) and embracing a modular design akin to servers, the backbone of the internet.

The company's fuel cell boxes are composed of ceramic (sand derived) discs and special ink.  It garnered attention earlier this week when it was featured on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.  While many alternative energy startups have struggled to find financial backers, it already has publicized major support from some of the tech industry's biggest names -- Google, eBay, Fedex, Staples, and Walmart.

Today, the company held a special event to share the important details of its long secretive energy technology with the public.  

At the event it announced that its fuel cell generators emit 60 percent less carbon per unit energy than a traditional coal power plant.  And unlike a coal power plant, the power is produced on site so there are no grid losses.  The whole process can be carbon neutral if the hydrocarbon source is an organic such as algae or switchgrass ethanol (as opposed to fossil fuels).

K. R. Sridhar, the ex-NASA researcher who founded the company says that he initially developed the technology to power Mars colonies, but in the end it proved too compelling not to offer on Earth.  He states, "After spending a decade of working on this, I had to look back at our first home. While I was dreaming about Mars and our colonies, historically unprecedented things had happened on Earth.  For me, it was really a composite image of... a bright world and a dark world. It was the image of the world of haves and the world of have nots. Those who had the opportunity for economy growth and those who were denied that."

He said the company was founded to provide the two billion people worldwide without access to affordable power a new, affordable energy source.

The result he obtained was a fuel cell that went from "powder to power" and was "twice" as efficient as traditional power plants due to the on-site scheme eliminating grid losses.  In his designs, a single fuel cell disc produces 25 W; a "stack" composed of multiple cells produces 1 kW; a "module" produces 25 kW; and a corporate-ready "system" produces 100 kW.  A corporate "solution" (consisting of several Bloom Energy Servers or "systems") supplies up to 1 MW of power.  

The power is continuous and flexible, unlike solar or wind energy.  As Mr. Sridhar describes, "This is not when the sun shines, this is not when the wind blows... that's how this little piece of sand is different than what's been done before.""

The real flesh of Bloom Energy's plan, though, is its planned consumer debut which will be carried out over the next few years.  Bloom aims at providing consumers with $3,000 units that will produce enough power to support the average home at minimal fuel cost.  It plans to push the power generation industry towards the same model that made the internet so fabulously successful -- server-based scaling.  In fact, it refers to its products as energy "servers" -- entirely flexible, modular power units.

The units (of any size) pay back their cost within 3 to 5 years and they will operate efficiently for 10 years (at which point they would presumably be serviced with new catalyst material, i.e. new fuel cell discs).

At the event Bloom Energy mentioned several more big backers -- Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Cox -- that have embraced the company's power generators [PDF].  Many of these backers -- including John Donaho of eBay, Bill Simon of Walmart, Brian Kelly of Coca-Cola, and Google's Larry Page – spoke at the event expressing their wild enthusiasm for Bloom Energy's delivery.  Describes Donahoe, "It was almost too good to be true."

With that kind of corporate support, it's hard not to buy in to the hype.  One thing that Bloom Energy did not note was that most of the adoption thus far has been in California where tax breaks could discount the Bloom Energy Servers by as much as 20 percent.  With an additional 30 percent federal tax break for "green" investments, the costs could be cut even further.  Still, even without tax breaks, if the company's payoff numbers and reliability are as good as it says, the units could enjoy market success.  If that's true, that's great news for the startup and a rarity in this business segment.

There are still some unresolved questions, however.  What exactly is the secret "colored inks" that Bloom Energy paints its cells with and are so great at catalyzing the production of energy from hydrocarbon fuels?  Bloom Energy still hasn't revealed the formula (perhaps it's patent pending).  Still, it today offered a lot more details on its big corporate backing, its efficiency numbers, and its plan for consumer rollout.  It's definitely going to be a fun ride watching this one in years to come.

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RE: Interesting...
By EPAstor on 2/24/2010 4:35:34 PM , Rating: 5
Lots of good points have already been made in response to this... But there's another factor. "Twice as efficient" is an inaccurate phrase; what most people mean when they say a process is twice as efficient is that it has half the inefficiency. So if a process was "twice as efficient" as a 45%-efficient process, it would actually be 72.5% efficient. Oddly enough - that's almost in the range they're claiming!

In fact, given that they're claiming efficiencies of 65-70% (believable for solid-oxide fuel cells, I think), that's equivalent to claiming an efficiency range of 30-40% for standard coal plants... which seems to make sense to me.

RE: Interesting...
By EPAstor on 2/24/2010 5:00:07 PM , Rating: 2
Whoops - sorry to reply to myself, but I missed one more correction.

Taking the low end of their claimed range, 65% efficiency, Bloom is claiming no more than 35% losses for the Bloom Box.

For the current power system, if we want twice that in losses (70%), we get the following equation for total losses (x being efficiency, (1-x) being losses): (7%)*x + (1-x) = 70%, or equivalently,

0.93*x = 1 - 0.7 = 0.3.

Solving, we find that the claim that the box is "twice as efficient" (if the box is 65% efficient) would be literally true if modern coal plants were ~32.25% efficient.

If we instead assume the box is 70% efficient, coal plants could be as much as ~43.01% efficient.

More generally, for a point-of-use system to be twice as efficient as the current grid, we would have g*c + (1 - c) = 1 - 2*x, or

(1 - g)*c = 2*x,

where g is grid losses, c is the current efficiency, and x is the efficiency of the new system.

Thus, if you can accept that coal plant efficiency is somewhere between 30% and 45%, Bloom Energy's claim is surprisingly reasonable! At least, I dismissed it out of hand at first, then did the calculations... and I was surprised.

RE: Interesting...
By Calin on 2/25/2010 2:14:32 AM , Rating: 2
Today the temperature is 0 degrees.
Tomorrow is twice as cold.
What is the temperature tomorrow?

RE: Interesting...
By camylarde on 2/25/2010 6:19:18 AM , Rating: 2
-137°C or so, don't make me search for the absolute zero in celsius ^^

RE: Interesting...
By MyK on 2/25/2010 6:59:14 AM , Rating: 1
Depends. Will your wife eat double the ice cream she ate today or is just your mother in law coming over?

RE: Interesting...
By bwave on 2/25/2010 10:04:41 AM , Rating: 2
0c would be -8.9c
0f would be -33f

RE: Interesting...
By BostonBeaner on 2/25/2010 11:13:44 AM , Rating: 2
First, you'd have to tell us at what temperature "cold" begins so that we'd know how many degrees Zero is "below cold".

RE: Interesting...
By jRaskell on 2/25/2010 3:56:38 PM , Rating: 2
Today the temperature is 0 degrees.
Tomorrow is twice as cold.
What is the temperature tomorrow?

Cold is a relative term with no frame of reference. Hence there is no twice as cold, or twice as hot without first defining some arbitrary frame of reference.

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