The Bloom Box unveiled – is it as groundbreaking as they suggest?
Bloom Energy Corporation announced the availability of the much-hyped Bloom Energy Server on February 24th. The patented solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology is being touted by the company as a cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable alternative to both today’s electric grid as well as traditional renewable energy sources. But does the “Bloom Box,” as it has been known in the media, really deliver?
The answer is both yes and no. The Bloom Energy Server provides distributed power generation, allowing customers to efficiently create their own electricity onsite, but how – and at what price – is still an issue.
The Bloom Box has a definite advantage over hydrogen-based fuel cell technologies, in that it is built using lower cost, affordable materials. It also can run on a variety of fuels – both renewable and traditional. This is a positive and a negative – although it’s cheaper to build, it’s only as reliable as the chosen source of fuel. Thus, the claim that it can “provide renewable power 24/7” is a bit misleading.
Each Bloom Energy Server provides 100 kilowatts (kW) of power in roughly the footprint of a parking space, according to the company. Each system generates enough power to meet the needs of approximately 100 average U.S. homes or a small office building. For more power, customers simply deploy multiple Energy Servers side by side. The modular architecture allows customers to start small and “pay as they grow”.
The price tag for that 100 kW system, however, still isn’t cheap – in the range of US$700,000-$800,000. The company is aiming to create a 1kW system for the home that would cost about $3,000. However, would that truly be enough for households, particularly in winter? This is questionable.
On the positive side, although it’s not a carbon-emission free energy solution, it will certainly cut emissions – generally by at least 40 per cent. Thus, there is definitely a marked increase in energy efficiency.
The company officially unveiled the technology at an event hosted at eBay Inc. headquarters along with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, General Colin Powell, and several of its early customers, which include Coca-Cola, Bank of America, eBay, Google and FedEx.
Customers who purchase Bloom’s systems can expect a 3-5 year payback on their capital investment from the energy cost savings, suggests the company. Depending on whether they are using a fossil or renewable fuel, they can also achieve a 40-100% reduction in their carbon footprint as compared with the U.S. grid.
Since the first commercial customer installation in July 2008, Bloom’s Energy Servers have collectively produced more than 11 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, according to the company, with CO2 reductions estimated at 14 million pounds – the equivalent of powering approximately 1,000 American homes for a year and planting one million trees.
“Bloom Energy is dedicated to making clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone in the world,” said Dr. KR Sridhar, principal co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy.
The Bloom Energy Server converts air and nearly any fuel source – ranging from natural gas to a wide range of biogases – into electricity via a clean electrochemical process, rather than combustion. Even running on a fossil fuel, the systems are approximately 67 per cent cleaner than a typical coal-fired power plant. When powered by a renewable fuel, they can be 100% cleaner. Each Energy Server consists of thousands of Bloom’s fuel cells – flat, solid ceramic squares made from a common sand-like “powder.”
This is certainly a technology with a lot of promise, and seemingly a good fit right now for larger campuses. But there are stil questions. Firstly, how long can the systems expect to last? And can we expect to see systems, relatively soon, at a better price point? The common questions raised regarding so many clean technologies are still an issue here.
For more information, visit BloomEnergy.com.