Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Opening the Bloom Box

There's been a lot of news this week about Bloom Energy's just released Bloom Box. They've been working on it for 8 years, and have VC investment of $400 million. Colin Powell sits on their Board, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California, attended the introduction ceremony.

The Bloom Box has been spoken of at times as producing cheap power while having no emissions and requiring no fossil fuels. The Bloom Box is a standalone unit, although it can connect to the grid the way your PV array does, and can be built in custom sizes to power individual homes or corporate campuses.

So this week was the unveiling, and inside the box was ... (drum roll please) ... a fuel cell.

Okay, it may be a more efficient fuel cell than ever before built. It may have some proprietary catalyst painted onto its ceramic plates. And it may have more flexible tastes in fuels than other fuel cells. But the upshot is that it's a fuel cell, not a power source.

You can look at fuel cells as either batteries that consume fuel, or tremendously efficient, low emission generators that don't get very hot. Either way, you're looking at a way to release energy that was actually generated in some other manner, or transported from somewhere else. They are not like solar panels and wind turbines that actually MAKE power from the sun and the wind respectively. Fuel cells combust fuel, i.e. things that have easily liberated hydrogen atoms in them - natural gas, propane, biogas, hydrogen gas. But there has to be a predescesor process to put that hydrogen atom in that place, to make that fuel - fossil fuel formation, biodigestion, hydrolysis. So, who is accounting for that energy? Who is accounting for those emissions?

More efficient fuel cells have a role to play in the clean energy world for sure. (Less expensive fuel cells have an even greater role to play, but I'm not sure Bloom has gotten there.) But they are not a messiah technology that's somehow going to save us all. So why all the hoopla?

The word I get is that the firms that have installed Bloom Boxes - Google, Wal-Mart, Fedex - have pushed Bloom to come out with the announcement so that they themselves can polish their green credentials. The competition for customers, and even more for employees, requires that these firms green their operations up as much as possible. And unless and until Bloom itself makes an announcement, those firms could not tout their Bloom Box installations. So perhaps here is an interface with CSR.

If the need for green credentials drives firms to adopt marginally improved technologies at relatively great expense, is that really a good thing for us all?

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