Bloom Energy Server
||This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (March 2015)|
The Bloom Energy Server (the Bloom Box) is a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) made by Bloom Energy, of Sunnyvale, California, that can use a wide variety of inputs (including liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons produced from biological sources) to generate electricity on the site where it will be used. It can withstand temperatures of up to 1,800 °F (980 °C), that would cause many other fuel cells to break down or require maintenance. According to the company, a single cell (one 100 mm × 100 mm metal alloy plate between two ceramic layers) generates 25 watts.
Bloom stated that two hundred servers have been deployed in California for corporations including eBay, Google, Yahoo, and Wal-Mart.
The Bloom Energy Server uses thin white ceramic plates (100 × 100 mm) that are made from components found in beach sand. Each plate is coated with a green nickel oxide-based ink on one side, forming the anode, and another black (probably Lanthanum strontium manganite) ink on the cathode side. According to the San Jose Mercury News, "Bloom's secret technology apparently lies in the proprietary green ink that acts as the anode and the black ink that acts as the cathode..." but in fact these materials are widely known in the field of SOFCs. Wired reported that the secret ingredient may be yttria-stabilized zirconia based upon US patent that was granted to Bloom in 2009; but this material is also one of the most common electrolyte materials in the field. US patent application 20080261099 , assigned to Bloom Energy Corporation, says that the "electrolyte includes yttria stabilized zirconia and a scandia-stabilized zirconia, such as a scandia ceria stabilized zirconia". ScSZ has a higher conductivity than YSZ at lower temperatures, which provides greater efficiency and higher reliability when used as an electrolyte. Scandia is scandium oxide (Sc
3) which is a transition metal oxide that costs between US$1,400 and US$2,000 per kilogram in 99.9% pure form. Current annual world wide production of scandium is less than 2,000 kilograms. Most of the 5,000 kilograms used annually is sourced from Soviet era stockpiles.
To save money, the Bloom Energy Server uses inexpensive metal alloy plates for electric conductance between the two ceramic fast ion conductor plates. In competing lower temperature fuel cells, platinum is required at the cathode.
|Founder||K. R. Sridhar C.E.O , John Finn, Matthias Gottmann, James McElroy, Dien Nguyen|
|Headquarters||Sunnyvale, California, USA|
|K. R. Sridhar (founder, CEO)|
|Products||regenerative solid oxide fuel cells|
|85 Million loss (2008)|
|Owner||Kleiner Perkins (among others)|
Bloom Energy is the company that develops, builds, and installs Bloom Energy Servers. The company, started in 2002 by CEO K.R. Sridhar, is one of 26 named a 2010 Tech Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.
In October 2001, CEO K.R Sridhar met with John Doerr from the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Sridhar asked for more than $100 million to start the company. Bloom Energy eventually received $400 million of start-up funding from venture capitalists, including Kleiner Perkins and Vinod Khosla.
The company, originally called Ion America, was renamed Bloom Energy in 2006.
Sridhar credited his nine-year-old son for the name, saying that his son believed jobs, lives, environment, and children would bloom. Michael R. Bloomberg appeared at the launch by video link. Bloomberg's business news network covered the event, but attributed every statement to "Bloom Energy".
The CEO gave a media interview (to Fortune Magazine) for the first time in 2010, eight years after founding the company, because of pressure from his customers. A few days later he allowed Lesley Stahl of the CBS News program 60 Minutes to see the factory. On February 24, 2010, the company held its first press conference.
In July 2014, the company announced a "long-term strategic partnership" with Exelon Corporation to finance "fuel cell projects at 75 commercial facilities in California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York."
The current cost of each hand-made 100 kW Bloom Energy Server is $700,000–800,000. In 2010, the company announced plans for a smaller, home sized Bloom server priced under $3,000. Bloom estimated the size of a home-sized server at 1 kW, although others recommended 5 kW.
According to the New York Times (Green Blog), in early 2011 "... Bloom Energy ... unveiled a service to allow customers to buy the electricity generated by its fuel cells without incurring the capital costs of purchasing the six-figure devices.... Under the Bloom Electrons service, customers sign 10-year contracts to purchase the electricity generated by Bloom Energy Servers while the company retains ownership of the fuel cells and responsibility for their maintenance.... 'We’re able to tell customers, ‘You don’t have to put any money up front, you pay only for the electrons you use and it’s good for your pocketbook and good for planet,’ ' [CEO K.R. Sridhar] said."
On 24 February 2010, Sridhar claimed that his devices were making electricity for $0.08–.10/kWh using natural gas, cheaper than today's electricity prices in some parts of the United States, such as California. Twenty percent of the cost savings depend upon avoiding transfer losses that result from energy grid use.
Bloom Energy claimed to be developing power purchase agreements to sell electricity produced by the boxes, rather than selling the boxes themselves, in order to address customers' fears about box maintenance, reliability, and servicing costs.
As of 2010, 15% of the power consumed by eBay was generated via the use of Bloom Energy Servers. At the time, after factoring in tax incentives which effectively halved the initial cost, eBay expected a three-year payback period based on the then $0.14/kWh cost of commercial electricity in California.
The company says that its first 100-kW Bloom Energy Servers were shipped to Google in July 2008. Four such servers were installed at Google's headquarters, which became Bloom Energy's first customer. Another installation of five boxes produces up to 500 kW at eBay headquarters California. Bloom Energy stated that their customers include Staples (300 kW – December 2008), Walmart (800 kW – January 2010), FedEx (500 kW), The Coca-Cola Company (500 kW) and Bank of America (500 kW). Each of these installations were located in California.
Sridhar announced plans to install Bloom Energy Servers in third world nations. Ex-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, now a Bloom Energy board member, said the Bloom Energy generators could be useful to the military because they are lighter, more efficient, and generate less heat than traditional generators.
Bloom Energy Server technology is based upon stacking small fuel cells which operate in concert. Bloom Energy's approach of stacking fuel cells that enable individual plates to expand and contract at the same rate at high temperatures. However, other solid oxide fuel cell producers have solved the problem of different expansion rates of cells in the past. Scott Samuelsen of the University of California, Irvine National Fuel Cell Research Center questioned the operational life of Bloom Servers. "At this point, Bloom has excellent potential, but they have yet to demonstrate that they've met the bars of reliability." Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory expert Michael Tucker claimed, "Because they operate at high temperatures, they can accept other fuels like natural gas and methane, and that's an enormous advantage... The disadvantage is that they can shatter as they are heating or cooling."
Venture capitalist John Doerr asserted that the Bloom Energy Server is cheaper and cleaner than the grid. An expert at Gerson Lehrman Group wrote that, given today's electricity transmission losses of about 7% and utility-size gas-fired power stations efficiency of 33–48%, the Bloom Energy Server is up to twice as efficient as a gas-fired power station. Fortune stated that "Bloom has still not released numbers about how much the Bloom Box costs to operate per kilowatt hour" and estimates that natural gas rather than bio-gas will be its primary fuel source. AP reporter Jonathan Fahey in Forbes wrote: "Are we really falling for this again? Every clean tech company on the planet says it can produce clean energy cheaply, yet not a single one can. Government subsidies or mandates keep the entire worldwide industry afloat. Hand it to Bloom, the company has managed to tap into the hype machine like no other clean tech company in memory." 
Bloom claims a conversion efficiency of around 50%. A modern combined cycle gas turbine power plant (CCGT) can reach 60% overall efficiency, using a multi-step process. Sridhar stated that Bloom's products convert chemical energy to electrical energy in one step, are more fuel efficient than current gas-fired power stations and reduce transmission/distribution losses by producing power where it is used.
Each Bloom Energy Server ES5700 is said to provide 200 kW of power, similar to the baseload needs of 160 average homes or one office building. The average monthly electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer in 2012 was 903 kWh per month (or 1.24 kW mean load).
Sridhar said the boxes have a 10 year life span, although that could include replacing the cells during that period. The CEO of eBay says Bloom Energy Servers have saved the company $100,000 in electricity bills since they were installed in mid-2009, Fortune Magazine contributor Paul Keegan calls that figure "meaningless without the details to see how he got there".
Long-term business case
Assuming a 50% future cost reduction, one could argue that the best case scenario for the 200 kW unit would be a capital (installed) cost comparable to today's 100 kW units, i.e., around $800,000. Using average electricity ($0.10/kWh) and natural gas ($3/MMBtu) prices and assuming a 6% per year maintenance/operating cost apart from fuel, the break-even period for the device comes to over 8 years, based on published performance numbers.
|Parameter Name||Value||Unit / description|
|Fuel (natural gas) flow rate for 200 kW Bloom Energy Server||1.32||MMBtu/hr|
|Fuel energy in rate in kW (1 MMBTU/hr CH4 = 293 kW)||386.76||kW|
|Fuel cost||$3.96||per hour|
|Electric output rate||200||kW|
|System efficiency natural gas -> electricity||52%||percent conversion of natural gas energy to electrical energy|
|Electricity cost||$0.10||per kWh|
|Electricity produced revenue||$20.00||per hour|
|Run cost savings per bloom box (electricity revenue less fuel cost)||$16.04||per hour|
|Cost savings per year assuming 24X7 full load operation||$140,510.40||per year|
|Capital cost (estimated minimum cost after projected reductions)||$800,000.00||for each 200 kW unit|
|Annual maintenance / operation cost||6%||as a fraction of capital cost, per year|
|Cost savings after maintenance costs||$92,510.40||per year|
|Break even period||8.6||years|
These numbers mean that the total lifetime of these systems would need to exceed 15–20 years to make an argument for a viable long-term business case without subsidies. The analysis might be somewhat different if the systems are used mainly for peak (power) shaving when electricity costs can exceed $0.15/kWh. However, the intermittent nature of such peak periods would likely reduce the overall impact on the estimated break-even period using average cost figures for electricity and natural gas. A reliable bio-derived source of fuel (bio-gas) would also tip the argument in a favorable direction, however such sources are not typically located near customer sites.
A Gerson Lehrman Group analyst wrote that GE dismantled its fuel cell group five years ago and Siemens almost dismantled theirs. GE Power Conversion is researching a SOFC power hybrid. United Technologies is the only large conglomerate that has competitive fuel cell technology. Toshiba has technology to provide energy for a small device, not a neighborhood.
Sprint owns 15 patents on hydrogen fuel cells and is using 250 fuel cells to provide backup power for its operations. Sprint has been using fuel cell power since 2005. In 2009, Sprint's fuel cell program received a grant of $7.3 million from the United States Department of Energy to expand the hydrogen capacity of its fuel cell tanks from providing up to 15 hours of backup power, to 72 hours. Sprint partnered with ReliOn and Altergy for fuel cell manufacture, and with Air Products as a hydrogen supplier. German fuel cell firm P21 has been working on similar projects to supply backup power for cellular operations. United Technologies makes fuel cells costing $4,500 per kilowatt.
In October 2012, the US government awarded Bloom Energy $70,710,959 under its section 1603 energy awards program.
A competitor claimed the Bloom Box uses a "thick electrolyte" that requires 900 °C temperatures to overcome electrical resistance. Topsoe Fuel Cell and Ceres Power instead employ "thick anode" technology that allows operation at cooler temperature. Ceres has a four-year program to install 37,500 units in the homes of customers of the UK's British Gas.
Ballard Power's comparably scaled products are based on proton exchange membrane fuel cells. Ballard's 150 kW units are intended for mobile applications such as municipal buses, while their larger 1 MW stationary systems are configured from banks of 11 kW building blocks.
Another competitor in Europe and Australia is Ceramic Fuel Cells. It claims an efficiency of 60% for the power-only units; these fuel cells are based on technology spun off from Australia's CSIRO.
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