Monday, March 01, 2010

The Rose Is On The Bloom

This week, Bloom Energy unveiled its “Energy Server” fuel cell as a significant contribution to the green energy & energy independence movements. It’s perhaps the first bloom of spring, as well as a major blooming of alternative energy technology. Aside from the obvious play on words with the company’s name, just how much of a “bloom” will this development prove to be?

More clean and less expensive power is what we need.While it is too early to tell for sure, my guess is that Bloom Energy’s electricity generators will mature into either a valuable component of energy production and management or perhaps a game-changing invention that will transform our relationship with energy.

The Bloom Energy Server started out as a NASA research project to make air and fuel from electricity for future expeditions to Mars. When that project ended, Dr. KR Sridhar and his team noted that the technology could also be run in reverse to produce electricity from air and fuel. It took them 5 years to create their first working prototype and another couple of years to scale it up to commercial power levels of 100 KW. The Energy Server can now be considered a production product with installations at Google, Ebay and other major corporations.

So, how does this device work and what makes it better than other green energy solutions? The Bloom Energy Server is what is called a high temperature fuel cell. A fuel cell converts hydrocarbon fuel plus oxygen into water and electricity. We first started hearing about this technology during the Apollo Moon program when NASA put fuel cells on-board their spacecraft to generate electricity. What’s different about the Bloom invention is that it uses a ceramic plate as a dielectric with proprietary ink coatings on each side to create the chemical reactions. Each plate, which you can hold in your hand, generates about 1 KW of electricity. Stack them together in modules and you can scale that up to 10 KW to power a home or 100 KW to power a small business.

Inside the Bloom Fuel Cell

What fuels this fuel cell? In this case, natural gas right out of the utility pipe. It can also run on landfill methane or other bio-gases that happen to be available. The oxygen source is plain old air. The fuel cell generates heat and steam during operation, which are needed to sustain the reaction. There is also a relatively small amount of CO2 released as a byproduct, but less than you’d get by burning the gas. In fact, this process is less polluting and more energy efficient than running a gas turbine to turn a generator.

I guess you might think of this as a solid state gas turbine generator, minus the noise and exhaust. That makes it a good candidate to replace engine-based backup generators for residences and businesses. Right now the price is too high for home use. But it has something like a 3 year payback for business use as an alternative energy source, not just for backup power. That’s impressive, when you remember that this product is just rolling out in limited production. As it follows the learning curve for any new technology, prices will come down as quantities go up. There will also be many more models of Bloom Energy Servers available, with both higher and lower power levels available.

If this was nothing more than just another way to turn natural gas into electricity, it would still be an important development. But being a clean, quiet device that can be installed right next to a building with about the same look and footprint as a large electrical transformer, it offers an opportunity to distribute power production farther and wider than ever before. If the price comes down to a one year payoff or better, there will be mad scramble by every medium and large business to install these systems on their property.

We thought that was going to happen with solar panels, but the cost and variable nature of solar power has stunted the adoption of solar. Google, one of the Bloom Energy Server users, has previously deployed massive arrays of solar panels. But these installations are still rare enough to be notable in the U.S. Wind energy has enjoyed more popularity, but wind also suffers from variable output levels depending on how the breezes blow.

Nay sayers to the green energy movement point at these limitations to pooh-pooh the whole idea of abandoning traditional hydrocarbon fuels. But this is too limited a view. The right solution is not going to be a single killer-app like fusion. It’s far more likely to be a systems approach using all sorts of technologies managed by a smart grid that takes energy from where it is available and delivers it to where it is needed. For instance, solar is well suited to provide peak air conditioning needs. After all, when do you run an air conditioner the hardest? It’s when the sun in beating down mid-day in summer. That’s exactly when solar panels produce their highest power outputs.

There is talk that a really smart grid could even tap into millions of electric cars sitting in their garages to provide power smoothing for the grid by quickly supplying or absorbing small amounts of electricity each. The Bloom Energy Server might also serve this function on a commercial scale. Imagine if each company had a Bloom unit outside and an array of solar panels on the room. Our poor teetering energy grid would have a much easier job and there might be enough excess capacity to start shutting down obsolete coal fired generators.

Of course, there is still a need for baseload power, which is beyond the capability of any alternative sources right now. That argues for additional nuclear plants to curb carbon dioxide emissions. Bloom Energy Servers, in mass quantities, might also provide baseload power. However, there’s a real question of how much natural gas reserves we’ll have if we start using gas to replace coal on a major scale. There’s also some level of CO2 release inherent with any fossil fuel to electricity conversion.

What we really don’t know yet is how well we can do if we go after energy independence and green energy in a big way. We can’t say that we’ve really tried until you look around and see solar panels on every roof and windmills in every field and hear your neighbors bragging about how much money they make selling electricity to the grid. Hey, we got to the moon in less than 10 years with fuel cells. How fast can we solve our energy issues with wind, solar and fuel cells if we really put our hearts into it?

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