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photo: Walmart

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

When Walmart announced on Monday that it would install 15 megawatts’ worth of solar arrays on as many as 30 of its stores in California and Arizona, it set out to shape the solar market in more ways than one.

The reason? The world’s biggest retailer specified that many of the new solar installations should use thin-film photovoltaic panels. Thin-film solar cells are printed or deposited on glass or flexible materials. And although they are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, they can be produced at a lower cost than traditional crystalline silicon solar cells.

Thin-film solar currently accounts for just about 20 percent of the solar market. The most technologically advanced versions have had a difficult time grabbing market share due to competition with low-cost Chinese crystalline silicon manufacturers and a recession that has dried up investor funding.

Enter Walmart.

“By leveraging our global scale to become a more efficient company, we are able to lower our expenses and help develop markets for new technologies,” Kim Saylors Laster, Walmart’s vice president of energy, said in a statement. “Developing and incorporating new renewable energy sources, like thin film, reduces energy price risk and aligns very well with our commitment to solving business challenges through technology.”

Walmart signed a deal with SolarCity, a leading Silicon Valley solar installer, to manage the project. SolarCity will install and own the photovoltaic arrays on Walmart stores and sell the electricity to the retailer.

SolarCity’s chief executive, Lyndon Rive, told me Monday that the company will install thin-film solar arrays made by First Solar and Miasolé.

First Solar, which makes an older variant of the technology called cadmium telluride, is the world’s biggest thin-film manufacturer and Walton family members were early investors in the Tempe, Ariz., company. First Solar is also an investor in SolarCity, which already uses its photovoltaic panels.

Miasolé, a Silicon Valley startup, is one of a number of companies that has developed a type of thin-film solar cell called copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS, that offers the promise of higher efficiencies and lower costs.

“Walmart wanted to see thin-film be adopted and made that a requirement in the bidding process,” says Rive.

He noted that the retailer did not dictate the percentage of stores that should receive thin-film solar arrays but expects the technology will account for the majority of installations over the next year.

“There’s no hard and fast number but they’d like us to do as much as possible,” said Rive.

Another twist in the Walmart deal is that the company collaborated with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop the criteria used to select SolarCity. (EDF, which maintains an office near Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., has long worked with the retailer on sustainability initiatives.)

The goal, Walmart said in a statement, “was to identify the most innovative solar technologies that would create benefits on three fronts — to the environment, technology, and financial viability.”

The bigger ambition, though, is to shape the solar market, as Walmart acknowledged.

“The company’s large scale on-site installation of CIGS could help further the development of this technology and bring it to market quicker, while use of cadmium telluride thin film could help make the case for other businesses to adopt the technology for on-site commercial use.”

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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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