Fast Company

eBay Opens Up About Installing Bloom Boxes and Their Room for Improvement

Bloom Box

The Bloom Box fuel cell device has been the subject of plenty of controversy since its unofficial unveiling in a 60 Minutes segment earlier this week. The device, which has already been installed on the campuses of major companies like eBay, Google, Staples, and FedEx, converts natural gas into electricity. But how efficient is it? Is the box worth the money? Amy Skoczlas Cole, the Director of eBay's Green Team, spoke with us briefly about eBay's installation of five Bloom Boxes.

According to Cole, the boxes take up 3,000 square feet of space and produce 500 kilowatts of power--enough to take 15% of the San Jose, California, campus's energy use off the grid. At the moment, eBay is running its Bloom Boxes off natural gas, but the company plans to switch to biogas sometime in the near future. "We're in the stages of finalizing the contract to turn on biogas," Cole explained. Once the system switches to biogas, the Bloom Box energy process will have net zero production of CO2.

EBay's Bloom Boxes complement the 3,246 solar panels on the roof of the company's LEED Gold-certified headquarters. But the Bloom Boxes are ultimately more efficient. "The solar panels takes 55,000 square feet and at their peak performance takes 18% of our electricity use off the grid, but that's not at night or on days when we have rain," Cole said. "Running the two side by side over the course of a year, we will get 5 times as much energy from the Bloom system."

Bloom Boxes don't come cheap--companies pay $700,000 to $800,000 a pop--but Cole estimates that eBay's system will pay for itself within three years. Since the system started running seven months ago, eBay has already saved $100,000 in electricity costs compared to power from the grid. And so far, the company hasn't had any big issues with the system. "Maintenance teams have had to come out to replace wafers in the system before, but that was part of standard maintenance. The way the system is built there are hundreds if not thousands of the wafers in each system, so it didn't cause us any particular issues," Cole said. eBay's maintenance contract lasts 10 years, which says something about how long Bloom expects its boxes to run.

Over the past 7 months, eBay has managed to keep its system under wraps--even to employees. "The boxes sat behind a fence for a long time while they were being installed," Cole explained. "But we gave our employees a heads up about the 60 Minutes piece." Eventually, eBay might add even more Bloom Boxes to its main campus. "We're actively in discussion about what more we can do together," Cole said. "It's a terrific new technology that we're really excited to be early adopters of."

[Bloom Energy]

Read more about Bloom Box:
Bloom Energy Unveils Its Ultra-Secretive Bloom Box Fuel Cell
Is the Bloom Box Energy Server the Future of Plug and Play Electricity?
How Does the Bloom Box Energy Server Work?
Could the Wondrous Bloom Box Power Your Alt-Fuel Car and Smartphone Too?

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9 Comments

  • Ryan Trenton

    Agreed with the comments on CO2 release. It can be carbon-neutral (like the carbohydrate-derived CO2 in human breath), producing no increase in atmospheric concentration. The carbon in biogas is ultimately from plant material that recently took that carbon from the atmosphere, so no net change. In contrast to fossil carbon sequestered over time from the prehistoric atmosphere, then released in a geologic minute.

    Although the Bloom Box looks promising, there are a lot of hyped-up energy "solutions" out there that turn out to be hard to scale up at reasonable cost or expensive to maintain. Once this one has stood the test of time and higher production (and cost projections are substantiated), I'll be convinced it has a significant role in our energy future. Until then we need to keep developing the great potential this nation has in renewables, from geothermal to concentrated solar thermal, supplemented with natural gas. Along with grid upgrades that enhance distribution, and the efficiency improvements that make ANY resource go further.

  • Ryan Trenton

    Agreed with the comments on CO2 release. It can be carbon-neutral (like the carbohydrate-derived CO2 in human breath), producing no increase in atmospheric concentration. The carbon in biogas is from plant material that recently took that carbon from the atmosphere, so no net change. In contrast to fossil carbon sequestered from the prehistoric atmosphere over eons, being released in a geologic minute.

    Although the Bloom Box looks promising, there are a lot of hyped-up energy "solutions" out there that turn out to be hard to scale up at reasonable cost or expensive to maintain. Once this one has stood the test of time and higher production (and cost projections are substantiated), I'll be convinced it has a significant role in our energy future. Until then we need to keep developing the great potential this nation has in renewables, from geothermal to concentrated solar thermal, supplemented with natural gas. Along with grid upgrades that enhance distribution, and the efficiency improvements that make ANY resource go further.

  • James van Pelt

    Can we all agree that it's not 3,000 square feet, but 3,000 CUBIC feet that the Bloom box takes up? Or what am I missing?
    Also, I think they'd save a lot of PR time and money if they simply hire a figurehead named Bloom.

  • Chris Reich

    Yes, I too noticed the statement about eliminating CO2 once the switch to Bio fuel is made. She probably doesn't understand the physics involved. Most people don't. Most people in charge of "green" programs don't take all factors into consideration because they don't understand them.

    The "Yes, it can run on solar" statement was probably edited---it looked chopped. The explanation was probably engineering jargon and the producers cut it. When showing a wind turbine, you could say it can run on water and the earth is 2/3 covered with water. Then add, but the water has to be moving. Cut! Not sexy, just say it can run on water.

    Ebay's 55,000 sq. ft. of solar panels are black. Being black, they absorb a lot of heat that is later released as infrared radiation. Since little of California's power is produced by burning fuel (we use mostly hydro), Ebay's solar system may be net less 'green' than simply buying electricity because they are producing C02 and radiating heat.

    Still, I'm glad companies with the money are investing in these technologies. Without private sector investment, it would be nearly impossible to keep development moving forward. The private sector factors in a return whereas the government subsidizes to stimulate. Ebay will hold Bloom accountable and will buy more boxes as the technology improves. He gets funding and incentive along with accountability.

    Don't count Bloom out yet.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Scott Porter

    The Company Limnia, located at www.limnia.com, has already shown this, has the issued patents on it, prior to Bloom, and has a smaller system for a far lower cost. Bloom's lawyers better make a licensing deal quick before Limnia owns them...

  • Jim Call

    "CO2 will not longer be released as a byproduct of the Bloom Box energy production process" is just wrong. Any biofuel or hydrocarbon yields water and CO2 as byproducts of the chemical reaction THAT PRODUCES THE ENERGY. The Bloom Box makes energy the same way you gas furnace makes heat - by reacting oxygen and fuel. The Bloom Box doesn't just create an infinite supply of energy...

    On 60 Minutes, the inventor said you could "Yes, use Solar" as a fuel. Is the guy stupid or did Leslie Stahl just distract him? If you already have solar power, why would you want to put it into a fuel cell? To get the same electricity back out?

    Sorry, don't mean to rain on the parade. But I was in Utah when Cold Fusion was introduced, and I just have the same sinking feeling about the Bloom Box.

  • Jim Takchess

    Re: Once the system switches to biogas, CO2 will not longer be released as a byproduct of the Bloom Box energy production process.

    I think Cole could of more accurately stated this as " Once it switches to biogas no net new CO2 would be produced as this process will then be carbon neutral. "