Bloom Box - An unveiling of the Fuel Cell future

The inner workings of our energy future?

We first mentioned Bloom Energy in our post on residential fuel cells, but when we published that post earlier this month not too much was known about the stealthy company who thinks they can revolutionize how we get our energy.  That could all change tonight when CBS covers the company on 60 MINUTES ( 7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT).  (watch the 60 minute coverage of Bloom Energy here)

***Update 2/25/10 - Bloom Energy revealed what they've been up to yesterday when their web- site went live at 1 PM EST.  The device used to power commercial facilities is called a Bloom Energy Server.

Yesterday, Powell wrote a post titled "What is the Bloom Box?" where he postulated on how it may work:

Sridhar’s invention appears to provide a way to capture and store energy from any source: clean or fossil-based.  One of the biggest challenges for the renewable energy industry is storing power when the energy source isn’t available.  For wind power, it’s for when the wind stops blowing; for solar energy, it’s for when it’s cloudy or the Sun goes down at night.  The Bloom Box uses energy when it’s available to store it as hydrogen and oxygen.  When the energy source is no longer available, the Bloom Box reverses and starts generating electricity from the hydrogen and oxygen.

Before I read Powell's post yesterday I hadn't even thought about the Bloom Box taking electricity and storing it as hydrogen for later use.  I'll be curious to see if the Bloom Box only works in one direction (natural gas --> electricity) like I assumed in the residential fuel post or if it can actually use excess electricity from the grid or solar panels and store it as hydrogen (for later use).

Update - 2/21/10 - After watching the piece on 60 minutes I didn't see any mention of energy storage capabilities, so my assumptions is that this version of the Bloom Box is only going to generate power using a gas, which in most situations will be natural gas.  While the Bloom Box can also use renewable gas, like landfill gas or bio-gas, in most cases it will use natural gas.  There are a few down sides to this:

  1. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel which means there is only so much of it in the ground
  2. Natural gas is subject to price fluctuations just like oil is.  With a dwindling supply and increased world demand, these price fluctuations will only get more severe
  3. Natural gas isn't readily available everywhere (but of course no energy source is readily available everywhere)

And while the actual concept of using a fuel cell to power homes or businesses isn't new, a cost-effective, reliable, and market ready solution is new. 

If the Bloom Box uses natural gas to produce electricity in a fuel cell right on the spot (which it does), you eliminate many of the losses that currently exist in our electric power distribution system.  The down side is that you are still relying on a fossil fuel, albeit one that is cleaner than coal or oil and way more efficient since it is being used to create electricity at the point of use.

The Bloom Boxes currently only come in one size that can power commercial buildings or approximately 100 homes and Bloom Energy says they sell for around $700-$800,000.  According to CBS, John Donahoe, CEO of E-bay, confirms Bloom Boxes were installed at his corporate campus nine months ago.  The company says the boxes already saved them over $100,000 in electricity bills.

Update - 2/21/10 - The 60 minutes post also revealed that FedEx, WalMart, Staples and Google have Bloom Boxes.  Google was the first company to install one.  The 5 Bloom Boxes at Ebay's headquarters are truly fueled by a renewable source in the form of landfill gas and power 15 percent of the campus!  I was also interested in learning that Colin Powell is on their board of directors.

If you are looking forward to getting a piece of the Bloom Box action, the company plans  to roll out a smaller home version for about $3,000 a unit in 5-10 years.

I'll be watching 60 Minutes tonight to see if Bloom Energy appears to be as revolutionary as I hope.  Stay tuned.....

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While it remains to be seen how far the "footprint" of this unit intrudes on individual Electric co-ops and "local" pieces of the national grid, I am excited about this Wednesday's IPO. I think if we can shed the onus of power stations and power plants, we, as a tech-rich and savvy nation, can vault over the ideas and paradigms that are holding many innovative people back and make power generation/farming a cottage industry. I look forward to power neighborhoods where septic/sewer boxes are tapped to fuel several of these boxes, if just for a well lit neighborhood. Just think, biofuel, which we have in abundance, meeting our needs without the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt that perpetually refers to "peak oil" & now "peak natural gas."
Mike, I'm not sure they are doing an IPO Wed. I think it is just a company announcement.
I still want to see the numbers. It's not an energy source, just apparently a more efficient way to change fuel into electricity. But how much more efficient is it? How much do you actually save? If the unit does cost $3k residential, and it turns my $200 monthly to $100, then it pays for itself in 30 months. Then again, the price for that fuel would probably increase. I'm all for green tech, but I see this as only part of the solution. Better energy storage (article above suggests it does this, but the 60 minutes segment said nothing) and a truly cheap, renewable, 'clean burning' fuel source is still needed.
My understanding from the video of the interview with the inventor, K.R. Sridhar, is that the box is multi-fuel and can burn pure hydrogen. So what's the problem? Until there are convenient, competitive sources of hydrogen, you can still pollute less with a fossil fuel we don't have to import. When we do have hydrogen available economically and conveniently, it is a wonderful technology that is platinum-free and highly efficient with virtually zero pollutants. Political will depends to an enormously high degree on public opinion. So why are we putting political obstacles in the way of something so good because it's not perfect yet? Please!
Henry, you are exactly right. I see this as more of a transition technology that we can use for the next 20-30 years until we figure out how to power our society with 100% renewable source.
i will buy the first bloom box , let the company install it and use my home as there first real residential test sight because i am ready to do something about these very high and out of control energy costs we are all being ripped off daily do it !!!!!!!! and see
I'll be right behind you in line Mark. It would probably be worth getting some neighbors together to see if you could get a whole neighborhood interested in a local unit. I bet your natural gas provider might be interested in buying a local Bloom box and installing smart meters in all of your homes to compete with the electric utility...
To speculate: I see people on the boards taking stabs at annual return on investment and they mention their monthly electricity bill. Of course, they don't mention their natural gas bill. But I wonder ... with a the Bloom energy server (residential grade), which would be the lowest cost to operate: Natural Gas-based Bloom energy server with Natural Gas furnace and water heater ? or Natural Gas-based Bloom energy server with "electric" heat/furnace and electric water heater ?
I may be missing it in all the articles & coverage, but: Is the Bloom energy server designed in such a way that the carbon byproduct can be captured/sequestered? It's a natural conclusion that I can not believe is not covered on the data sheet and website.
How well would a bloom box be at using locally produced hydrogen?


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