Thursday, 11 March 2010

Is this the breakthrough in distributed power?

Photo: Bloom Boxes at ebay (from, 11/3/10)

Another fuel cell is launched and another round of enthusiastic investors and reporters are proclaiming the world as we know it is about to change. Bloom Energy has announced the release of its 'decade in the making' fuel cell the Bloom Box. It is easy to dismiss this as another hype filled company that will fail to deliver on its promise; but sooner or later someone really will revolutionise the way we generate energy.

Is this it? It is hard to say, but there are a few things that make Bloom Energy extremely interesting. Firstly, Gen. Colin Powell (Ret) is one of two independent board members. Secondly there seems to have been interest from a number of leading companies including Google, Walmart, Bank of America, Coke, FedEx and ebay with FedEx predicting a payback period of 5 years (the others do not provide a prediction though Bloom Energy predicts 3-6 years).

The third, and perhaps most interesting, is that the Bloom Box is a solid oxide fuel cell rather than the more expensive and more common (in commercial applications) Proton Exchange fuel cell. Solid Oxide fuel cells can operate using a variety of different fuels, do not need to use an expensive Platinum catalyst and are extremely efficient even by fuel cell standards but traditionally operate at a high temperature (600C +). As you can imagine these high temperatures add to the costs associated with design and production. Bloom claim to have solved this problem though there is not much detail on how.

In a marketing and sales sense Bloom Box is simple to understand: a group of fuel cells the size of a loaf of bread will power a house, the design is modular, the more you put together the more power you get out, a complete module can power 100 homes or 1 office block. This is an easy idea for the consumer and business customer to get their head around; a concept that is both easy to understand and scalable will be easier to sell in the board room. Those businesses that do install this systems will also make a clear statement to visitors, a shiny set of these boxes out the front sends a message.

So will Bloom Energy succeed? Well I think it has a better shot than most that have tried so far: it has good independent leadership at board level, is being used by leading companies who are willing to participate in case studies, it is cheaper to produce than traditional fuel cells, it is modular and easy to understand and it looks good.

Bloom has a pretty good shot at being extremely successful and changing the way energy generation is viewed; perhaps even get us used to the idea of localised energy generation. Whether Bloom Energy succeeds with the Bloom Box may be irrelevant though, especially if it opens the market for other 'distributed power generation' entrepreneurs.

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