The clean tech news of the week is going to be dominated by Bloom Energy‘s emergence from stealth. I can hardly believe that it was almost four years ago that I first wrote about Bloom. Reading that 2006 EcoGeek article, I’m proud to say that we got the broad picture right, but the details are still tantalizing.
Bloom Energy’s current product is a relatively inexpensive and versatile fuel cell that can power roughly 100 American homes. The devices cost $700,000 a piece and are roughly twice as efficient as natural gas power transmitted through the grid. They’ve sold a bunch of these boxes (with hefty federal and state subsidies) to a lot of large businesses in California, including Google, eBay, FedEx, WalMart and Staples. The boxes are busy creating “clean” energy as we speak.
Bloom has finally opened the doors to its operation to the press, allowing 60 Minutes a walk-through of their facility as well as providing interviews with the CEO of eBay and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. But I put “clean” in quotation marks because, despite the fact that the words “carbon dioxide” are never mentioned, Bloom Boxes still pump CO2 into the atmosphere, albeit far less than a traditional grid-scale natural gas plant would.
Bloom’s energy is certainly cleaner energy, but while they’re busy comparing themselves to solar power and wind, they’re not true clean energy unless they use bio-gas. I applaud them for using bio-gas when they can, but there simply isn’t enough of the stuff to power Bloom Boxes on a significant scale.
But let’s not spend too much time arguing about whether “cleaner” counts as “clean.” In my book, this is certainly good enough.
Bloom’s true potential is in super-charging the distributed power system. Bloom (very optimistically) wants to shrink its box (in size and cost) so that every American can have one in their basement for around $3000. The box would power the entire house, basically making a connection to the grid a convenience, not a necessity. This may not seem important until we realize that up to half of the power produced at a power plant is lost in transit.
Bloom Energy might also help power the developing world without expensive power infrastructure just as cell phones have created a cheap communications infrastructure.
Bloom’s goals are lofty and it may be that distributed power is going to be a long time in coming if it comes at all, but while they’re doing a great job of making this revelation sound more important than it is in the short term, the chance remains that this could actually be a very big deal.