Bloom and gloom

The world can breathe easy now: Bloom Energy’s star-studded launch has happened and all our energy problems are solved. Well, maybe.

We don’t want to sound too cynical. The company has some substantial backing – often a problem for new energy technologies – and it’s addressed one of the key shortcomings of fuel cells with its cheap ceramic and ink components.

But, some rather breathless coverage aside (step forward, TechCrunch), there have been a couple of good analyses of what information there is now available on the Bloom Energy Servers, which shows that we’re not about to see an energy revolution from the devices just yet. Firstly, Alexis Madrigal writes on Wired that the Bloom Energy Server is still ‘too spendy‘ – like a lot of new energy forms, it only makes economic sense with substantial subsidies – which have improved the proposition for early users of Bloom’s products, such as Ebay and Google.

Madrigal highlights a Bloom blog post by Lux, the renewable energy analysts, which takes the systems to task for their cost (emphasis theirs):

Bloom’s California customers achieve the quoted electricity costs only because they pay for just half of the system’s capital expense, based on the generous 30% U.S. federal tax credit and the $2,500/kW California rebate (New York and Connecticut also have generous rebate programs for fuel cells, as do many countries around the world). 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. Note that this is high compared to average retail U.S. electricity costs of roughly $0.11/kWh.

Meanwhile Bloom Energy’s data sheet puts efficiency at “>50%”. The report we linked to yesterday published on the DOE website mention 46 per cent AC efficiency and 33 per cent net efficiency. These may have been affected by the cold conditions (the tests were carried out in Anchorage). But then there is the heat generated by the systems, and their durability, to consider.

This will no doubt generate a lot of interest in fuel cells, but it could also create a lot of disappointment when the hard reality sinks: in stark contrast to the tech industry, a bit of clever technology and some super  marketing simply isn’t enough to transform the energy landscape. The hurdles are far greater and the benefits  are less sexy – more sustainable energy, sadly, doesn’t usually include fun new functionality that will make would-be customers rush to buy it. Externalities are a different matter, and a very important one – but covering externalities is hardly a great diversion.

Related links:

A lot of guesswork about Bloom Energy’s fuel cells (FT Energy Source)

Energy Source is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

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