How will you power your home 10 years from now? At this point, it is unclear. Increasing fossil fuel prices, rising energy demand, and global warming are spurring an unprecedented boost in research and funding in the alternative energy industry. One of the most novel inventions to emerge from the industry is the Bloom Box from Bloom Energy. K.R. Sridhar, currently CEO of Bloom Energy and a former NASA engineer, says he hopes to be selling Bloom Boxes to homeowners within five to ten years at a price of $3,000/unit.
A Bloom Box is essentially a mini-fridge sized power plant that is located on premises. A Bloom Box, aka Bloom server, is a solid-oxide fuel cell that converts natural gas into electricity on demand. The solid oxide fuel cells, flat coaster-sized ceramic plates with a secret coating, can each power one light bulb. When 64 plates are stacked together, they can generate enough energy to power a coffee shop. Oxygen and natural gas are fed into the Bloom Box fuel cells to undergo a high-temperature chemical reaction and produce electricity, heat, carbon dioxide, and water.
Currently, larger commercial Bloom servers are being tested on major corporation campuses including Google, FedEx, Wal-Mart, and eBay. One of these jumbo Bloom Boxes, which retails around for $800,000, could easily power hundreds of homes. eBay currently receives 15% of their daily energy needs with an estimated savings of $100,000.
Critics argue that the technology has some major hurdles to overcome before it can be rolled out. Similar systems already on the market are priced between $30,000 and $56,000. Even after federal incentives, the most affordable unit is costs $15,000. (Not an apples to apples comparison because Bloom claims to have a more efficient unit.) In addition, safety is a major concern for Bloom Box skeptics. Solid oxide fuel cells operate at very high temperatures and have been known to crack and leak.
While Bloom Boxes have some major challenges ahead, they have the potential to be a significant part of the future energy revolution. Will they be the silver bullet and bury the solar power industry? Absolutely not. The Bloom Box is projected to produce electricity at 10 cent/kilowatt after incentives. Existing renewable energy technology rates include solar at 11 cents and wind turbines at 5 cents. It is important to note, solar and wind power hold the advantage of not being tied to fluctuating gas prices.
Furthermore, solar power is very low maintenance because it has few moving parts and needs only periodic cleansing of the panels. Conversely, the Bloom Box has many moving parts and will need ongoing maintenance. Moreover, most solar systems come with a 20 year warranty vs. the Bloom Box’s 10 year warranty. Finally, let’s not forget that while the Bloom Box is very efficient, it still releases carbon emissions.
So where does this leave us? In a very good place! How great would it be to generating a large amount power from the sun during the day and meet your power needs at night via a super-efficient, on demand, gas power plant in your backyard?