Bloom Fuel Cell: Your Individual Power Plant

At a news conference attended by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Silicon Valley start-up this week took the wraps off a fuel cell designed to enable individual homes and businesses to generate their own power.

Bloom Energy showed off the Bloom Energy Server , which is being billed as a game changer for the clean energy industry. The solid oxide fuel cell is built to generate electricity with a mixture of oxygen and renewable or traditional fuels -- all without creating any emissions.

"Bloom Energy is dedicated to making clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone in the world," said K.R. Sridhar, principal co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy. "We believe that we can have the same kind of impact on energy that the mobile phone had on communications. Just as cell phones circumvented landlines to proliferate telephony, Bloom Energy will enable the adoption of distributed power as a smarter, localized energy source."

Sridhar noted that 20 corporate big hitters, including FedEx, Wal-Mart, Staples, eBay, and Google already are using Bloom Boxes. The news conference was held at eBay's San Jose headquarters.

Google spokeswoman Niki Fenwick said in an e-mail to Computerworld that the search giant has been using four Bloom Boxes at the company's Mountain View headquarters for the past 18 months.

"The boxes are a permanent purchase," Fenwick wrote today. "We may expand our use of the fuel cells in the future, but we don't have anything to announce at this time.... We're always on the lookout for opportunities to power our operations with clean and economic power and willing to try innovative new things, and we've been pleased with our Bloom Energy experience."

She added that the four Bloom Boxes make up a 400-kilowatt installation for Google. And over the last year and a half, the project has had 98% availability and delivered 3.8 million kilowatt hours of electricity.

While Fenwick declined to say what Google paid for the boxes, Bloom Energy said each commercial-sized box costs between $700,000 and $800,000.

eBay noted that the Bloom Boxes it's using take 15% of the campus' energy needs off the grid completely. The company has been using five Bloom Boxes on its San Jose campus for the past nine months, according to a release from the company.

"eBay believes in the power of our business model to make a real difference in the world, and that includes how we embrace innovation to reduce our carbon footprint," eBay CEO John Donahoe said. "When Bloom came to us, it was an easy decision to become an early adopter of its cutting-edge new technology. As a result, we're meeting financial and environmental goals with the project, while fueling a more energy efficient global marketplace. That's good for us, our customers and the planet."

Sridhar said he's also hoping to see Bloom Boxes become a common fixture in people's backyards and basements before 2020. He estimated the cost of systems for individual homes at about $3,000.

"This is certainly interesting technology and, at least from what I've seen, is the first fuel cell that is deployable now and not just a scaled up lab experiment," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "They cite a three-to-five-year payback on capital investment via energy cost savings, which is a great number. But without knowing the lifespan of the unit or maintenance costs, it really doesn't tell us the whole story."

Olds also noted that Bloom Energy is contending that its fuel cells have a 2-to-1 efficiency advantage over electric utilities.

"If that's true, then this could potentially be a big win for everyone," he said. "In fact, those electric utilities may be lining up to buy the first units off the production line. The capital cost alone, not to mention the environmental costs, associated with building massive power plants is massive. If utilities could use Bloom technology to add capacity cheaply and site it closer to their customers to cut transmission loss, then it's certainly something they will pursue."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld . Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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