Bloom off the Rose

Michael Giberson

After eight years in stealth mode, Bloom Energy had a big week in the media last week.  They opened up on 60 Minutes and picked up mentions everywhere from the New York Times to local newspapers to a zillion blogs (us included).  Much of the discussion was a bit over-excited.  At Green Chip Stocks, Chris Nelder noted that environmental blogs seemed particularly agog over the announcement (“The green blogs fell all over themselves repeating the breathless ‘Holy Grail’ speculations in Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes report, which was indistinguishable from an in-house marketing puff piece.”).

But a few analysts, Nelder included, managed to run the numbers on the handful of specific claims sprinkled within the public relations blitz.  The exercise has left them less impressed.

Nelder, “Is the Bloom Box Energy’s Holy Grail?“:

Fuel cells aren’t new…. None have achieved real commercial viability yet…. What’s new about the Bloom Box is that it claims to be high efficiency (producing more power with less waste heat than other fuel cells), small, relatively cheap, and able to run on a variety of fuels including natural gas, landfill gas, and biogas….

Let’s have a look at the numbers….

And then, after chomping on a few numbers, he concludes the estimated “payback period” is longer than the product’s estimated lifespan (meaning you won’t have recovered your initial investment by the time comes that you need to buy a new one), the capital costs are high even compared to solar PV, and the emission reductions are good but not great.

In addition, Nelder notes, this fuel cell is unlikely to run on anything other than natural gas in residential use – how many homes will ever be served by a landfill gas pipeline? – and for similar gas supply reasons  it is unlikely to light up the dark in many developing countries.

Sam Jaffe, Renewable & Distributed Energy Blog, gives us “Four Things Bloom Energy Forgot to Tell the World,” namely that the fuel cell “does not produce electricity more efficiently than centralized generation, isn’t much cleaner than centralized generation, and is more expensive to produce than most other forms.  Finally, Jaffe notes the process theoretically has energy storage capability*, but it isn’t clear when the capability may be made available.

*Instead of producing power, theoretically the technology can consume power and produce hydrogen, which can be stored for later use as a fuel.  But no information seems to be available about the efficiency of the system as a storage device, and the apparent lack of a willingness to speculate on the availability of the feature is not encouraging.

(HT to Kate Mackenzie at FT Energy Source for the Nelder link.)


2 thoughts on “Bloom off the Rose

  1. My Small, NYC-based telecom company looked into installing a UTC fuel cell (with a front-end reformer to convert utility NG into hydrogen as required by the UTC unit). In teh end we went with a Capstone Micro Turbine system. The cost justification was driven in part by the fact that if we didn’t install our own primary generation plant we’d have to spend the greater part of that cost on a back-up generator anyway.

    What really made the economics work however, was the ability to use the waste heat output to run our data center air conditioning. That translated into a reduction of about 25-30% of our baseload electric demand, on top of the 4-5 cents/kwh we save on the net electrical power we consume.

    I’ve read all the Bloom coverage and so far have not seen any discussion of any use being made of the waste heat. I leaves me wondering whether it’s really an oversight or if the Bloom box consumes much of the heat for it’s own process requirements (or runs cool), undermining the usual co-generation benefit of on-site generation.

  2. The waste heat mentions that I saw were not entirely consistent – some suggest the Bloom Box needs all of its heat (it runs at a fairly high temperature) while others suggested a CHP possibility that hasn’t been implemented. I don’t think any of the official Bloom Energy documents claim CHP applications, at least not the ones I looked at.

    I’m guessing they are smart enough to have considered the possibility and decided not to implement for good reason. (Sort of like the energy storage option, except so far as I saw, they hinted at the eventual energy storage possibility and not an eventual CHP possibility.)

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