A freezer-sized box to provide power to 100 homes, running on renewable fuel? Sounds good, doesn’t it? If it turns out to be economical, practical, and efficient, it could be great:
A mini power station containing fuel cells that can run on anything from natural gas to the more renewable stuff, Bloom’s device has received the level of hype in Silicon Valley normally reserved for a new product from Apple.
For the past week, newspapers and websites have been filled with rumours about Bloom boxes, as the devices have been nicknamed, invented by former Nasa scientist KR Sridhar.
Fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity by an electrochemical process, are a promising source of energy while emitting less CO² and other pollutants, as well as being much more efficient, than burning. But most modern designs use expensive materials, such as platinum, or corrosive chemicals that shorten their lifespan.
At the heart of Sridhar’s device is a thin fuel cell made from a plentiful resource, sand. The size of a floppy disk, it is painted with proprietary inks that allow the fuels to react with oxygen from the air, a chemical process that produces electricity.
Bloom Energy claims that the boxes provide electricity at about half the cost of current conventional sources. Current customers include heavy hitters like Google, FedEx, WalMart, and Coca-Cola.
Of course, the company hasn’t been providing a lot of detailed technical information, so it’s not clear if this is one of the breakthroughs in electrical generation that will change everything, or if it’s another interesting blip that will quickly disappear.
Richard Miller, an innovation platform leader at the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, said Bloom Energy had yet to provide data to allow a fully informed decision on the value of its technology.
Update, 25 February: Alexis Madrigal says it’s too expensive for the current market conditions:
The analyst firm Lux Research posted a note to its blog today noting that Bloom had confirmed their 100-kilowatt boxes are priced between $700,000 and $800,000 without subsidies of any kind.
In fact, a long-term R&D collaboration between the Department of Energy and multiple solid-oxide fuel-cell manufacturers, the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance, estimates that fuel cells will need to cost $700 per kilowatt of peak capacity to compete unsubsidized with the grid. Bloom’s product costs 10 times that.
“The cost is about an order of magnitude higher than it needs to be, to be truly competitive,” said Michael Tucker, a fuel cell scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
When you do the math, the Bloom box’s electricity costs substantially more per kilowatt hour than the grid.
“Without incentives, we calculate electricity would cost $0.13/kWh to $0.14/kWh, with about $0.09/kWh from system cost and about $0.05/kWh coming from fuel cost,” Lux wrote. “Note that this is high compared to average retail U.S. electricity costs of roughly $0.11/kWh.”
An order of magnitude more than conventional power? Yep, that qualifies as “spendy”.