Bloom Energy: What We Know, What We Don't

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The announcement of Bloom Energy's low-emissions energy server drew the world's attention to Silicon Valley yesterday. But, even after the announcement and demonstration, many questions remain. (editor's note: term changed to the more precise "low-emissions," 4:45 p.m. February 25, 2010.)

Here is some of what we know about the Bloom Energy Server, and what we still need to find out:

Where did the energy server come from?

It's from Mars. Or would have been going to Mars if NASA's plans hadn't changed. The fuel cell was developed at the space agency as part of its plan for planetary exploration. It potentially is as important as any other NASA discovery and directly benefits people here on Planet Earth, making it a pretty good investment of tax dollars.

What makes the Bloom Energy Server special?

Bloom Energy says its fuel cells have a 2-to-1 efficiency over electric utilities. That fact alone makes the server attractive for many uses, as it allows a unit the size of a parking space to produce 400Kw of electricity using less fuel than a traditional power plant would require.

So you have to use energy to make energy, what gives?

Some have focused on the fact that the Bloom server requires a fuel source, such as natural gas, to operate. Many people don't realize that energy is converted from one form or another to make electricity. At the end of the day, solar energy drives almost everything we do.

Coal and petroleum are created by the decomposition of organisms that lived millions of years ago, and themselves used the sun's energy to grow. The Bloom server converts biofuels or natural gas (along with oxygen) to electricity.

Who will purchase Bloom's servers?

Right now, companies that can afford to spend $700,000-$800,000 on a relatively unproven device that supposedly pays for itself, through lower electricity bills, over a 3-5 year period. It helps to have a supply of cheap biogas available, such as from decomposition in a landfill. The units are likely to prove attractive to electric utilities as a replacement for other power generating equipment, which is less environmentally-friendly and may cost more to operate.

Will there really be a Bloom Energy Server for our homes?

Who can really say? Bloom is promising a unit that can power a home in 10 years at a cost of $3,000, but that has to be considered speculation given the timeframe and variables. If I were guessing, I'd imagine Bloom servers might appear to power whole neighborhoods and be operated by traditional power companies before the home server appears. It all depends on how the technology and market place develops over time.

Does Bloom have competitors?

"There are probably another 100 companies that are working on something very similar," Jack Brouwer, associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center told the Los Angeles Times. "But the key thing is that Bloom has an integrated system and package ready for commercial sale that puts them ahead of the pack."

The potential exists for a competitor to introduce an even more attractive system than Bloom, which was founded in 2001 and spent 9 years developing its server. Wednesday's announcement puts some pressure on competitors to make their announcements, too.

What don't we know?

There are several important unknowns about the Bloom Energy Server, including:

•1. - What is the life span of the server? The individual fuel cells are said to have a long life, but what about the total system?

•2. - How much downtime will a system have? Google has said its system is operational 98 percent of the time. That's may be OK if you have another power source available, but what if Bloom is the only source? Is the downtime scheduled or a surprise? If you have multiple Bloom servers, are they likely to go down at once? Do whole servers fail or just a single 100Kw module at a time?

•3. - What do you do with all the heat? While Bloom servers don't emit greenhouse gases, they do produce a lot of heat, potentially limiting their application. Is there some method planned to use this heat? How much additional energy savings might that provide?

The Bloom Energy Server is certainly an exciting development, but that excitement should be tempered by the challenges it faces, and the likelihood that another company has something at least as exciting in development.

My takeaway is that energy problems may be more easily solved that previously imagined.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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