After 8 years in stealth mode, Bloom Energy has finally revealed all about its Bloom Box fuel cell device (AKA the Bloom Energy Server). We already learned a lot from Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment on the device, and our interview with eBay executive Amy Szoczlas Cole revealed even more. Here’s what we learned from today’s press conference at eBay headquarters.
The Bloom Energy fuel cell is essentially a flat piece of sand made from a process dubbed “Powder to Power.” The cell can run on a variety of fuels, including traditional fuel, natural gas, biomass gas, landfill gas, and ethanol–all without the need to use complex chemical plants for processing. A single cell-filled Bloom Box provides 100 kW of power and has a 3 to 5 year payback period with fixed costs for 10 years. Any piece of the device that isn’t working can be swapped out without bringing down the whole thing.
The Bloom Energy Server is twice as efficient compared to the standard electric grid for two reasons, according to the just-unveiled Bloom Web site: “Bloom’s unmatched efficiency in converting fuel to electricity means that our systems produce significantly more electricity for the
same fuel costs. Second, our ability to generate the electricity
on-site eliminates the need for costly transmission and distribution
infrastructure.” According to an article in the New York Times, Bloom devices can produce power at 8 to 10 cents per kWh using natural gas–lower than some commercial electricity prices, but remember: natural gas isn’t a renewable resource.
So far, Bloom has partnered with eBay, Coca-Cola, Walmart, FedEx, Staples, Google, Bank of America, and Cox Enterprises. Bloom Energy founder K.R. Sridhar says that Bloom has powered over 11 million kWh and cut 14 million pounds of CO2 since installing the pilot devices. Coke says that its Bloom Box is already powering a third of an Odwalla plant, and Cox claims that its four units at KTVU in San Francisco power 70% of the facility. Walmart’s units power 60% to 80% of the energy needs in the buildings where they are installed, while Google is using a unit to power an R&D center.
A decade from now, the Bloom Energy Server could be hooked up in homes and used to power electric vehicles in conjunction with solar panels. Sridhar explains that leftover solar energy could go into Bloom’s Home Energy Server for later use. And eventually, Bloom board member Colin Powell envisions the boxes being used in third-world African countries. But the cost will have to come down before that can happen–the current price of $700,000 to $800,000 is far too expensive, and even the projected residential price of approximately $3,000 is pushing it.
Bloom Energy founder K.R. Sridhar calls the device the “plug-and-play future of electricity” since there are no moving parts, no vents, and no loud buzzing noises. Fair enough, but we learned in our interview with eBay that the company has already had maintenance teams come out to swap fuel cells in its Bloom Energy Servers, which have been running for just 7 months. How efficient can a residential unit ever be if maintenance teams have to constantly come out to fix things? And what is the projected lifespan of a stack of Bloom’s fuel cells? We have to hope that Bloom works out some of its kinks before bringing the servers to the residential market.