On Sunday Feb. 21st, on the news show 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl interviewed former NASA employee, K.R. Sridhar about his company, Bloom Energy. If the product described in the story delivers anywhere near what is promised, we may very well be seeing the dawn of a whole new era of how electricity is generated and distributed.
Don’t feel bad if you hadn’t heard of Bloom Energy before that story, hardly anyone had. It was founded in 2002 under the name Ion America and changed to Bloom Energy in 2006. Even after the name change, the company essentially worked in seclusion until it decided to come roaring out of the gates at the consumers this week.
Dr. Sridhar was working on a device to go to Mars on the now abandoned man mission. He was tasked with helping devise a device to use solar power and water to make hydrogen for vehicles and oxygen to breathe. After the project was killed off, Dr. Sridhar wondered about reversing the process in his device to have it generate power.
After 8 years, and $400 million in venture capital funding, the Bloom Energy Servers are ready to be shown to the world.
The devices use fuel cells made out of a form of sand that is pressed into ceramic tiles that are painted with specially developed paints that make one side of the tile green, and the other side black. Once oxygen touches one side, and the fuel source touches the other, energy is generated and everything is done. How much power each server is capable of producing depends on how many stacks — essentially a brick of the fuel cells — are placed inside of each device.
The Bloom Energy servers have only been unveiled to the public this week, but at least 18-months ago the company began selling them to major corporations like Google, eBay, Walmart and more. While eBay’s installation is powering only 15 percent of its main campus, Walmart is trying them out in what could be the most significant placement of the devices yet; the major retailer has installed the devices at two stores in California, and while they are not yet on biofuel, which is the option for completely eliminating their carbon footprint, each store eliminated 1 million pounds of carbon. Now, multiply that across all the Walmart stores in the United States and you can start to see how if these devices never get past being affordable only by major corporations that it could still make a world of difference in the amount of energy demanded in this country from the main power grid.
And therein resides the real magic part of this new device: the home version. Dr. Sridhar feels it will be 1o years for some $3000 version of the devices can be offered for use in homes, but once it makes it to that point, everyone could easily be generating enough power for their homes that the strain taken off the distributed power generation model our power grid currently uses will become entirely obsolete.
Area-wide blackouts? A thing of the past. With each home generating their own power, it will be awfully difficult for anyone to ever go without power unless they somehow run out of fuel. Depending on the fuel chosen, you may need to have it delivered to you, and that decision will also play a factor in how many emissions you’re putting out. If you’re using something such as biofuel, you’re output will be zero, but using natural gas will continue to create emissions, albeit far less than any of the current energy generation methods, save nuclear.
Google has said that it is now looking at possibly powering an entire data center with Bloom Power Servers. While no target date has been given as of yet, there could be a day in the future where the energy used in your search for the latest gadget is being done by a server running on power generated by ceramic tiles instead of a smoke spewing coal plant.
And that is where the excitement for this project comes from. As someone who has seen a lot of technologies come and go, some of which people proclaimed would change the world as we know it (I’m looking at you Segway …), I have never felt like I truly was witnessing a true change in the world. If Bloom Energy is able to deliver on the devices like it says it can, we are looking at cheaper, cleaner energy that lacks some of the inherent problems of a distributed grid power generation scenario like what the world currently uses.
More so than what this technology might do for us that already enjoy electricity in some form, imagine what it could do for people in rural villages. One Bloom Power Server could power lights in an entire rural village in some small country. Power could be provided virtually anywhere that some sort of fuel was available to power the needed reaction.
It may not be Bloom Energy that does all these things, it could very well be a company like GE that gets a mass production box out to the consumers first. It doesn’t really matter what brand is on the device, but the odds are high that this technology will in some way or another be impacting your life in the coming years, whether it be at a corporations head offices or your own unit out in your garage.