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Bloom Energy debuted on Wednesday its highly anticipated power plant-in-a-box that supporters claim represents a breakthrough in clean energy produced from solid oxide fuel cells.
The company unveiled the Bloom Energy Server, dubbed the "Bloom Box," at eBay's San Jose, Calif., headquarters. Attendees at the highly orchestrated media event included California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Bloom Energy has raised about $400 million from investors, which include the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfied & Byers. Kleiner Perkins discovered and funded such highly successful companies as Amazon and Google. Bloom Energy is the firm's first investment in clean energy.
With so much money backing Bloom Energy, the hype behind the company's launch has been intense, with supporters painting the company's technology as revolutionary. The company lists as customers eBay, Google, FedEx, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Cox Enterprises, and Staples.
"For years, there have been promises of new energy solutions that are clean, distributed, affordable, and reliable; today we learn that Bloom, formerly in stealth, has actually delivered," venture capitalist John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, said in a statement. "Americans want clean, affordable, energy, 24x7 -- and all the jobs that go with it. Bloom's boxes are a breakthrough, serving energy, serving demanding customers, and serving our country."
Patriotism aside, Bloom Energy's power boxes are not cheap. The Bloom Energy Server, which has a footprint that's roughly the size of an average parking space, costs $700,000 to $800,000 and provides 100 kilowatts of power, enough to power a small office building.
By industry standards, that ratio of power to dollars is much too high. According to the Solid State Energy Alliance, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the technical goal is to develop mass producible, modular solid oxide fuel cell units that produce electricity at $400 per kilowatt.
Bloom Energy, headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., claims the price of its boxes will eventually come down. K.R. Sridhar, which co-founded the company in 2001 and is chief executive, told CBS news program 60 Minutes that he believes a box capable of powering the average U.S. home could eventually cost less than $3,000.
Solid oxide fuel cells are not new. The technology has been around for more than 40 years and is under development by such leading companies as Siemens AG and Westinghouse. Bloom Energy, however, believes its technology is a major advancement.
Like other fuel-cell technology, the Bloom box produces electricity through an electrochemical process that uses hydrogen, natural gas, methane, or other fuel. Power is produced at a fraction of the emissions of a typical power plant and the fuel-to-electricity efficiency is much higher, from 50% to 70%. In applications designed to capture and use the system's waste heat, which is as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, the overall fuel use efficiencies could top 80% to 85%.
Bloom Energy's secret technology stems from Sridhar's work years ago at NASA. The secret sauce in the technology is a proprietary green ink painted on one side of the cell that acts as the anode and a proprietary black ink on the other side that acts as the cathode. The cells are stacked in building a box. The company says a stack of 64 cells, for example, can generate enough electricity to power a Starbucks.
Besides lowering the price, Bloom Energy will have to prove its technology is reliable to be successful. Solid-oxide fuel cells need to operate for years with nearly 100% reliability, ideally for 10 years, experts say.