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Archive for the ‘Bloom Energy’ Category

photo: Edelman

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about Adobe Systems putting a dozen Bloom Energy fuel cells on the roof of a parking garage at its downtown San Jose headquarters, the largest such installation in the United States:

To green up its operations, Adobe Systems, the maker of the ubiquitous Flash media player, has done everything from installing waterless urinals to building a wind farm at its downtown San Jose, Calif., headquarters.

Now the company has put a dozen 100-kilowatt Bloom Energy fuel cells on top of a parking garage that will supply nearly a third of the three-tower complex’s electricity.

It will be the nation’s largest installation of Bloom Energy Servers, a cutting-edge solid oxide fuel cell that has been bought by Google, eBay and other big corporations.

Bloom Energy, a long-secretive Sunnyvale, Calif., start-up that has raised $400 million from some of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists, unveiled the energy servers to great fanfare at a February event attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state; and a host of technology chiefs.

Fuel cells convert hydrogen, natural gas or another fuel into electricity through an electrochemical process and then provide electricity directly to a building without the need for new transmission lines. Depending on the type of fuel used, Bloom claims its devices can sharply cut or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Randy Knox, Adobe’s senior director for global workplace solutions, said the company aimed to obtain half of its electricity from renewable sources. But Adobe was stymied by the fact its operations are located in urban skyscrapers rather than on a sprawling corporate campus.

“We just don’t have space on our tower rooftops for large solar arrays,” said Mr. Knox.

Earlier this year Adobe did install 20 1.2-kilowatt vertical wind turbines made by Windspire Energy on a sixth-floor plaza that connects two of its buildings. But the urban wind farm, which looks more like a modern art exhibit than a power plant, generates only enough electricity to power about 10 average homes –- when the wind is blowing.

A dozen Bloom Energy Servers, however, produce 1,200 kilowatts of power around the clock and fit comfortably on the roof of Adobe’s parking garage. Visible from neighboring towers and the 101 freeway, the polished metal cubes’ green-chic look owes more to Apple’s tech aesthetic than to old-school industrial design.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

When Bloom Energy unveiled its long-awaited fuel cell earlier this year to much media attention and announced it had installed the 100-kilowatt devices at Google, eBay, and other Fortune 500 companies, there was sniping in some quarters about greenwashing as the Bloom Energy Servers ran on natural gas.

But generators can also use biogas and on Tuesday a Bloom competitor, FuelCell Energy, announced the sale of a 1.4-megawatt chicken poo-powered fuel cell to an egg farm in California’s Central Valley.

Olivera Egg Ranch will install an anaerobic digester that will strip methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from untold pounds of poultry poo that usually are stored in a waste lagoon. Instead of escaping into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming, the methane will power the fuel cell, which will generate enough electricity to supply the ranch’s entire operations.

In a double play for the environment and the ranch owner’s pocketbook, the heat that is a byproduct of the fuel cell’s operation will be used by the anaerobic digester, forgoing the need for a combustion-based boiler. In other words, Olivera’s eggs — it packs 14 million cartoons annually — will be produced with virtually greenhouse-gas free electricity.

Most California farming operations that have recently deployed anaerobic digesters — usually to process cow manure — connect them to pipes that ship the methane gas to a distant utility power plant where it is used as fuel.

Fuel cells take distributed energy to the countryside, generating electricity onsite and thus avoiding the need for transmission infrastructure as well as the greenhouse gas emissions of a central natural gas-fired power plant.

“My waste disposal costs will decrease as will my power bill as the poultry operation will continually generate the fuel needed to create electricity, reducing the amount of electricity needed from the electrical grid,” ranch owner Ed Olivera, said in a statement.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about California regulators’ preliminary decision to reject requests by two big utilities to install grid-connected fuel cells:

While Google, Wal-Mart and other corporations have embraced fuel cells, California regulators have turned down requests from the state’s two biggest utilities to install the technology.

In a preliminary decision, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission found unwarranted an application from Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California to spend more than $43 million to install fuel cells that would generate six megawatts of electricity.

The technology transforms hydrogen, natural gas or other fuels into electricity through an electrochemical process, emitting fewer or no pollutants, depending on the type of fuel used.

“It is unreasonable to spend three times the price paid to renewable generation for the proposed Fuel Cell Projects, which are nonrenewable and fueled by natural gas,” wrote the administrative law judge, Dorothy J. Duda, in a proposed ruling issued last week. “In addition, the applications do not satisfactorily address how full ratepayer funding of utility-owned fuel cell generation would enhance private market investment and market transformation of the fuel cell industry.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In my latest Green State column in Grist, I take a look at why, despite the hype, Bloom Energy’s fuel cell breakthrough could change the energy game:

Green tech had its Google moment this week in Silicon Valley when one of the most secretive and well-funded startups around, Bloom Energy, literally lifted the curtain on what it claims is a breakthrough in fuel cell technology: affordable electricity! Fewer greenhouse gas emissions! And that’s all before they throw in the bamboo steamer.

After eight years in stealth mode—until this week, Bloom’s website featured the company’s name and little else—the startup pulled out the stops in a carefully stage-managed media blitz that recalled the high-flying dot-com days of a decade ago. First came a report on “60 Minutes” that got the blogs abuzz along with stories in Fortune and The New York Times.

It all culminated in a star-studded press conference at eBay’s headquarters in San Jose on Wednesday, where California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced Bloom’s co-founder and chief executive, K.R. Sridhar, and gave him a bear hug before several hundred suits, environmental movement honchos and a bank of television cameras.

Before Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a Bloom board member, delivered the benediction, testimonials were offered by Google co-founder Larry Page and top executives from Wal-Mart, eBay, Federal Express, Coca-Cola, and other Fortune 500 companies that had quietly purchased 100-kilowatt Bloom Energy Servers over the past year.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), meanwhile, beamed in a bipartisan endorsement via video.

“This technology is going to fundamentally change the world,” the California Democrat declared.

But is it?

That’s the $400 million question (what some of Silicon Valley’s most storied venture capitalists have poured into Bloom so far).

With the hype—the apparently brilliant but unassuming Sridhar was compared to Steve Jobs at one point Wednesday—comes the backlash. Almost immediately analysts and competitors began asking hard questions about Bloom’s claims.

And there are some big unknowns. Will the fuel cell stacks last as long as the company anticipates or will frequent replacement undermine the economics of going off the grid, for both Bloom and their customers?

What’s the total cost of ownership for customers? Bloom says the energy servers have a lifespan of 10 years and a payback period of three to five years. That’s based on the current price of natural gas—which is one fuel used by the devices—and state and federal subsidies that halve the cost of the machines that sell for between $700,000 and $800,000. Will Bloom be able to scale up manufacturing and continue to innovate to bring the price of the energy server down? Can they be competitive without subsidies?

All legitimate questions. But it’s important not to lose sight of what looks to be some fundamental breakthroughs, not only in energy technology but in the way some major corporate players are embracing distributed generation-placing electricity production where it is consumed.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I have a story on Bloom Energy, which has revealed its fuel cell technology with much fanfare after remaining in stealth mode for eight years:

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — A Silicon Valley company is claiming a breakthrough in a decades-old quest to develop fuel cells that can supply affordable and relatively clean electricity. Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other large corporations have been testing the devices, which will be formally introduced on Wednesday.

The start-up, Bloom Energy, has raised about $400 million from investors and spent nearly a decade developing a new variety of solid oxide fuel cell, considered the most efficient but most technologically challenging fuel-cell technology.

K. R. Sridhar, Bloom’s co-founder and chief executive, said devices made by his company were generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt hour, using natural gas. That is lower than commercial electricity prices in some parts of the country.

“We got into this business to make affordable electricity, not fuel cells,” Mr. Sridhar said Tuesday as workers assembled stacks of fuel cells in tall, round cylinders and installed them in silver metal cubes at Bloom’s headquarters in a Silicon Valley office park.

The company has been working on the technology for eight years while saying little. The secrecy, and the prominence of the venture capitalists backing Bloom, have fueled both hype and skepticism about its efforts. Bloom is scheduled to unveil the technology Wednesday at a news conference attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a member of Bloom’s board.

You can read the rest of the story here.

I followed up the piece with an online story in The Times offering a more detailed look at Bloom:

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about Bloom Energy, the once-secretive Silicon Valley start-up that has apparently made a big breakthrough in developing a fuel cell that can generate electricity at competitive prices while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

The company is officially unveiling its Bloom Energy Server at a news conference on Wednesday morning featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state and a Bloom board member; and John Doerr, Silicon Valley’s leading green-tech investor. But on Monday and Tuesday, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the start-up’s headquarters in Sunnyvale and to see the Bloom box up close.

In contrast to the usual Silicon Valley practice of announcing a coming product, Bloom spent nearly a decade developing its fuel-cell technology while saying nary a word. Over the past year and a half, it has quietly sold and installed 100-kilowatt Bloom boxes at Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other big companies. The boxes cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece.

“Silicon Valley is learning some hard and important skills, mainly making stuff again,” said Mr. Doerr, a partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a Bloom Energy board member.

Making stuff, particularly solid-oxide fuel cells, is very hard work. Such fuel cells have been something of a holy grail as they can operate at extremely high temperatures to maximize efficiency and can use a variety of fuels, like natural gas and biogas. Since the heat allows the fuel to be directly transformed into electricity through an electrochemical process, the expensive precious metals and rare-earth elements used in other fuel cells to act as catalysts could theoretically be eliminated.

But finding cheap common materials as substitutes and ensuring fuel cells don’t crack and leak under such conditions have stymied scientists for more than 30 years.

So how did Bloom crack the fuel-cell conundrum?

You can read the rest of the story here.

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