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10 Questions About the Bloom Energy Server

Now that Bloom Energy has unveiled its innovative fuel cell technology to the world, it appears the much-hyped Silicon Valley startup's "Energy Server" shows a lot of promise, particularly for Fortune 500 companies that can afford the parking lot-sized power boxes priced up to $800,000 apiece.

But is the Bloom box too good to be true? We may not know for years, of course, although early reports from an impressive lineup of beta testers, including Bank of America, Coca-Cola, eBay, FedEx, Google, and Wal-Mart, are showing sizable reductions in both energy costs and CO2 emissions [PDF]. A power generator that saves money and the environment? This must be Tomorrowland!

Well, Bloom Energy is developing a power box for the home too, a development that could fundamentally change the way home users buy energy, if (again) the Bloom box is the real deal. Ten questions to consider:

1. When will the Bloom box for the home arrive, and what will it cost?

K.R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy, has said he hopes to see brick-sized energy servers powering homes within 10 years. The price: Somewhere south of $3,000, although it's unclear what the initial cost might be. Bloom Energy says its corporate customers will see a 3- to 5-year payback on their initial investment.

2. How durable would it be?

Fuel cell technology has been around for decades--it was even used during the Apollo moon missions--but it's unclear just how reliable Bloom's technology is. The Energy Server uses an electrochemical process to generate electricity, and it operates at extremely high temperatures. Could a home energy server last at least 10 years? A shorter lifespan might severely limit cost savings for consumers.

3. Buy or lease?

A lot of homeowners probably won't want to shell out a few thousand dollars for a newfangled energy device. Perhaps your friendly power utility might lease a Bloom server to you and handle whatever maintenance tasks are required. Then again, would this business model kill the cost benefits for homeowners?

4. Would I be able to get off the grid?

Ah, a tantalizing prospect for power company-haters everywhere. If the Bloom Energy Server works as promised, well, who needs the grid at all? Why not just pull the plug and become your own power company. Then again, you might want to keep emergency access to the grid, just in case your power box dies. And then there's yet another reason to stay connected. Read on.

5. Would I be able to sell energy to the grid?

Yes! Let's say you’re using only 75-percent of the energy your Bloom box produces. Why not sell the excess power back to your local utility? If feasible, the energy server might actually help defray a homeowner's power costs.

6. But would the grid still exist if everyone's got a Bloom box?

The grid isn't cheap to maintain. If few residential and business users are paying for grid-supplied power, where's the money going to come from to maintain the complex network built for energy generation and distribution?

7. What about future applications?

A Bloom box for the home makes sense. But what about other power-hungry devices? Automobiles, for instance. A brick-sized Bloom box is the right size for a car or truck. Heat dissipation might be a serious issue, however. Laptops and cell phones? Unlikely.

8. How might home energy servers affect the price of natural gas?

Well, that brings us back to how the Bloom box works. Natural gas or biofuel combines with oxygen to produce a chemical reaction within the fuel cell, a process that generates energy. If Bloom-style energy servers become commonplace, natural gas consumption might spike, particularly since biofuels are still relatively exotic. The Law of Supply and Demand would come into play. And would we get hosed by the natural gas providers? Check your monthly gasoline bill for the answer.

9. What if the Bloom box is just another Segway?

Remember back in 2001, when Segway inventor Dean Kamen said his high-tech scooter would change the way cities are built? Didn't exactly turn out that way, did it? Let's hope the Bloom box does better.

10. A lot of celebrities are endorsing Bloom. Isn't that a bad sign?

Yes, it really is. Let's see, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Colin Powell have already expressed their support. If celeb backers keep showing up--who knows, maybe Charlie Sheen will leave rehab to chime in--the Bloom Energy Server won't stand a chance.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci ) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com .

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