Is this a tipping point in the quest for energy independence? Can this technology drive the oil-rich OPEC elites back to third world living? Can a natural gas-based fuel cell reduce the need for emission-belching giant coal-burning electricity generation plants?
It's easy to have unrealistic hopes for a breakthrough that could help turn around the tough economic times we are experiencing. Critics provide numerous reasons to undermine all thoughts that "this time it's different." We might be disappointed, but the Bloom Energy devices create some momentum that is much needed.
I'm old enough to remember when PCs were viewed as expensive toys, back in 1980. Apple and Commodore had introduced computers for the home. The esteemed CEO of very successful Digital Equipment Corporation, Ken Olsen, said "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” Then the IBM PC came out, targeted for business use, and consummated the microcomputer revolution that continues today with smart phones and the Internet. In the early '80s the U.S. was in a deep recession, and the workforce productivity and technological innovation that was stimulated by the IBM-PC standard helped end the recession.
I mention the impact of the PC as a metaphor for the current energy situation. While the Bloom Energy device may not be the holy grail, it could be the first of a number of innovations that could break the hold of OPEC on industrial societies and trigger the demise of dirty energy like coal.
Bloom Energy Corp., one of Silicon Valley's most secretive startups, unveiled on Wednesday [Feb 24] its long-awaited "power plant in a box," a collection of fuel cells that the company says can provide clean electricity to homes, office buildings – even whole villages in the developing world.
The Bloom Energy Server, a smooth metal box the size of a pickup truck, can generate electricity from multiple fuels while producing relatively few greenhouse gas emissions. With government subsidies factored in, power from the server costs less than power from the grid. Unlike other fuel cells, Bloom's is made mostly of sand, with no platinum or other precious metals thrown in as catalysts. And unlike solar panels and wind turbines, each server can produce the same amount of energy day and night for years on end, according to the company. The process is twice as efficient as burning natural gas. "This is not when the sun shines, this is not when the wind blows – this is base load, nonstop," said K.R. Sridhar, Bloom's co-founderand chief executive officer. The server, he said, could change the energy industry in much the same way that cell phones changed communications, decentralizing the generation of power.
Sridhar introduced the device, for years a subject of intense speculation within the green-tech industry, before a large and rapturous crowd of politicians, press and Silicon Valley luminaries, eager to see the first product from a company that has landed roughly $400 million in venture capital investments. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hailed the server as a potential revolution. Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent the company, founded in 2001, congratulations via a video message.
More important, some of the business executives in attendance had already bought the servers, which cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece. Bloom, based in Sunnyvale, counts among its customers the Coca-Cola Co., Cox Enterprises, FedEx Corp. and Google Inc., all of whom sent executives to speak at Wednesday's public premiere. Online marketplace eBay Inc. liked the product enough that it hosted the event at its San Jose campus, where five servers have been running since July.