After years of secrecy, Bloom Energy today finally unveiled the Bloom Energy Server, better known as the Bloom Box. It uses novel fuel cell technology to produce electricity from a combination of oxygen, heat and a fuel source like natural gas or biogas, and it is small enough to sit relatively inconspicuously on company property.
The device, already in use at eBay, Google and several other company campuses and distribution centers, has been hyped as a potential game-changer in the energy and power generation conversation. Whether or not it ever gets down to the anticipated price tag of around $3,000 and becomes viable on a residential scale, the Bloom Box raises questions of what type of energy future we should be planning for.
If power generation decentralizes and more users go "off the grid," what happens to the billions of dollars being spent on improved electricity transmission and smart grid technology?
"Basically, we're talking about a distributed generation source," said David Leeds, a smart grid analyst with Greentech Media. "It's a component that could play in a lot of different ways but certainly fits into the concept of a microgrid, and that's very exciting."
Microgrids use what are called distributed generation sources: Instead of centralized power generation from a power plant, small, localized sources create the electricity. The Bloom Box is one such source.
Huge Change Coming?
According to the co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy, KR Sridhar, decentralizing power generation has a potentially revolutionary appeal.
"We believe that we can have the same kind of impact on energy that the mobile phone had on communications," he said. "Just as cell phones circumvented landlines to proliferate telephony, Bloom Energy will enable the adoption of distributed power as a smarter, localized energy source."
Some analysts say that potential might be slightly overstated, though, at least at the moment.
Fuel cell technology is not new, and the Bloom version may be an improvement, but it does not provide a completely novel method of power generation.
Older technologies needed corrosive acids or expensive metals; Bloom's solid oxide fuel cells use low-cost ceramics and proprietary "inks" to create a thin cell which are then stacked together. Oxygen on one side mixes with a fuel on the other side, and the chemical reaction results in some carbon dioxide (almost none if biogas is used), water and free electrons that travel along a circuit to provide the electricity.
"I think everyone understands that you need the Bloom Energies, and you need solar and other [things]," Leeds told SolveClimate. "It continues to be the case that there is no magic bullet. If they can get the cost down, then who's to say? Maybe that could really emerge as a big solution, but as it stands today, we're not there yet."
Judy Chang, an expert in power generation and transmission at the consulting firm the Brattle Group, said that if there really is mass adoption of distributed energy sources like the Bloom Box, it could limit the need for large investments in new transmission lines.
"But the opposite is also true," she said. "If you have a lot of wind and solar in locations that are very remote and far from load centers, then that increases the need for transmission investments."
Going Off the Grid
The technology, backed by powerful investors including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as several large corporations, has roots in a NASA project that Sridhar worked on that sought ways to sustain life on Mars using solar energy and water to produce air and fuel.
At today's Bloom Box announcement, executives of some of the major companies that already have the device installed highlighted the benefits to their companies. Rob Carter, the CIO and executive vice president at FedEx, said the Bloom Box is "helping us get 100 percent off the grid." FedEx is using the technology at a package sorting facility in Oakland.
According to Leeds, companies may be anticipating a price on carbon in the near future, and thus moving away from centralized power generation could save significant amounts of money.
"The ideal situation is to have both central and distributed generation available," he said. This would be "a form of redundancy, and should be viewed as a major improvement over the current situation, where for the majority of customers there is no back-up solution in place."
Data centers in particular need a distributed form of power generation as a backup, he said. Google was Bloom Energy's first company, using a 400 kilowatt installation to power a building that houses a data center.
Leeds also sees no real conflict between increasing the availability of non-centralized power generation and the continued development of smart grid technology and transmission.
"In our view, what smart grid means at a high level is networking all the elements of the grid, from critical infrastructure like the capacitors banks and substations down to, eventually, smart appliances within smart home networks," he said. "And this would just be one more thing that would be 'speaking' either to the home network or to the utility's command and control systems, if the utility was to own that Bloom Box, at the residential level."
At the moment, the steep price tag indicates that it will still just be large companies looking to improve energy efficiency and reduce costs that will adopt the technology. The Bloom Box is said to pay for itself in three to five years, but the systems currently retail for between $700,000 and $800,000 — far from the $3,000 target.
How quickly the price comes down and whether or not other major players like GE and Siemens get in on the fuel cell act may play a big role in how the electricity generation outlook changes in this country.
"I wouldn't say it doesn't change the conversation, but it all is a matter of magnitude," Chang said. "If you ask me, will we have tons of distributed generation such that our investments in transmission would not be necessary, then my answer is probably not."
(Photo: Bloom Energy)