Bloom Energy, a Sunnyvale startup that has been working in stealth for a decade and gone through more than $400 million in venture funding, finally took the wraps off its invention: a fuel cell that can power a home, corporate office or datacenter for what it said is much less cost than competing green energy technologies.
Bloom had its coming out on Sunday night, when it gave an exclusive sneak peek to "60 Minutes." The formal introduction today took place at eBay's San Jose offices; eBay is a major tester of the Bloom Energy Server, or "Bloom Box" as it is called. Joining Bloom founder K.R. Sridhar were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, venture capitalist John Doerr (who was interviewed in the "60 Minutes" piece) and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Bloom has a number of companies testing its Bloom Box energy generators, which are about the size of four regular refrigerators arranged two by two. Each box generates 100 kilowatts of power. Bloom estimates one box can power around 100 U.S. homes.
Google, eBay, FedEx and Wal-Mart are among its testers. Several Bloom Boxes can be seen on the eBay campus. eBay CEO John Donahoe told "60 Minutes" correspondent Leslie Stahl the Bloom Boxes provided more power than the 3,000 solar panels that cover the roof of eBay's offices. In the nine months they've been installed, the Bloom Boxes have saved eBay more than $100,000 in electricity costs.
"The footprint for Bloom is much more efficient," Donahoe told Stahl. "When you average it over seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the Bloom Box puts out five times as much power than we can actually use." eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) said the Bloom Boxes take 15 percent of the campus's energy needs off the grid completely.
Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) was Bloom Energy's first test customer in July 2008. It installed a 400kW installation on Google's main campus in Mountain View and the company is quite pleased with them.
"Over the first 18 months the project has had 98 percent availability and delivered 3.8 million kWh of electricity. We're always on the lookout for opportunities to power our operations with clean and economic power and willing to try innovative options. We've been pleased with our Bloom Energy experience," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.
A carbon neutral approach
eBay's boxes run on bio-gas made from landfill waste, so they're carbon neutral. The Bloom Box uses a combination of air and natural gas in a special fuel cell that's the secret sauce behind the Bloom Box's ability to generate electricity. They generate virtually no waste by-products or chemicals.
But a Bloom Box isn't cheap. The commercial-scale boxes used at eBay cost between $700,000 and $800,000. Of course, subsidies do help. California gives companies a 20 percent reimbursement of the cost and the federal government gives a tax break equal to 30 percent of the cost. So the price is cut in half. That's why FedEx, Staples and Wal-Mart all purchased and deployed their Bloom Boxes in California.
Bloom claims customers who purchase its systems can expect a three to five year payback on their capital investment from the energy cost savings and a 40 to 100 percent reduction in their carbon footprint, depending on the kind of fuel they use.
A smaller-scale box that Sridhar said would be for the home would be cheaper, but he did not say how much. And they are currently difficult to mass produce. Bloom Energy said it can only make about one Bloom Box per day. Also, the life span of the fuel cells is not known yet since they are so new.
Bloom's secret sauce is a proprietary set of inks that are painted on the cell. One acts as an anode, the other acts as a cathode creating the needed chemical reaction. Sridhar told "60 Minutes" that a stack about the size of a PC heat sink could power a home or a Starbucks, but there's more to the Bloom Box than the stack. It goes in a large container where the chemical reaction takes place and energy is generated.