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What may be perhaps one of the most groundbreaking green energy solutions available today may soon be affordable for most retailers to incorporate into their operations.
Bloom Energy Corporation, a Silicon Valley-based company committed to changing the way people generate and consume energy, last month launched the Bloom Energy Server, a patented solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology developed using common beach sand to provide a cleaner, more reliable and more affordable alternative to both today’s electric grid as well as traditional renewable energy sources.
What’s more, it provides distributed power generation, allowing customers to efficiently create their own electricity on-site.
The startup has already received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from several venture capital firms, including major investor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. John Doerr, a partner at the venture capital firm, is a Bloom Energy board member, as is Colin Powell; and the company has strong support from California’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Walmart, Coca-Cola, eBay and Google are among Bloom Energy’s early customers. Walmart has completed Energy Server deployments with 400 kilowatt systems at two Southern California retail locations. “At Walmart, our goal is to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy,” Bill Simon, COO of Walmart U.S., said at Bloom Energy’s launch, held last month at eBay headquarters. “To do this, we are considering a number of emerging technologies, including Bloom Energy, to ensure they work for our business, help lower costs for our customers and reduce our impact on the environment. We hope to use our scale to help bring these technologies to market in a fast and cost-effective way.”
Built using abundant and affordable materials, Bloom Energy’s fuel cell technology is fundamentally different from the legacy “hydrogen” fuel cells most people are familiar with. The Bloom Energy Server is distinct in four primary ways: it uses lower-cost materials, provides strong efficiency in converting fuel to electricity, has the ability to run on a wide range of renewable or traditional fuels, and is more easily deployed and maintained.
And unlike traditional renewable energy technologies like solar and wind, which are intermittent, Bloom Energy’s technology can provide renewable power 24/7.
“Bloom Energy is dedicated to making clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone in the world,” said Dr. K.R. Sridhar, principal co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy. “We believe that we can have the same kind of impact on energy that the mobile phone had on communications. Just as cell phones circumvented landlines to proliferate telephony, Bloom Energy will enable the adoption of distributed power as a smarter, localized energy source.”
This means replacing traditional electrical grids with localized, cleaner sources.
Powder to Power — How it Works
Founded in 2001, Bloom Energy’s roots date back to the NASA Mars space program. For NASA, Sridhar and his team were charged with building technology to help sustain life on Mars using solar energy and water to produce air to breathe and fuel for transportation. They soon realized that their technology could have an even greater impact here on Earth and began work on what would become the Bloom Energy Server.
The Bloom Energy Server converts air and nearly any fuel source — ranging from natural gas to a wide range of biogases — into electricity via a clean electrochemical process, rather than dirty combustion. Even running on a fossil fuel, the systems are approximately 67 percent cleaner than a typical coal-fired power plant. When powered by a renewable fuel, they can be 100 percent cleaner, according to Bloom. Each Energy Server consists of thousands of Bloom's fuel cells — flat, solid ceramic squares made from a common sand-like “powder.”
Each Bloom Energy Server provides 100 kilowatt of power in roughly the footprint of a parking space. Each system generates enough power to meet the needs of approximately 100 average U.S. homes or a small office building. For more power, customers simply deploy multiple Energy Servers side by side. The modular architecture allows customers to start small and “pay as they grow.”
According to Bloom Energy, customers who purchase Bloom’s systems can expect a three-to-five-year payback on their capital investment from the energy cost savings. Depending on whether they are using a fossil or renewable fuel, they can also achieve a 40 percent to 100 percent reduction in their carbon footprint as compared with the U.S. grid.
Coca-Cola’s 500 kilowatt installation at its Odwalla plant in Dinuba, Calif., for example, will run on redirected biogas and is expected to provide 30 percent of the plant’s power needs while reducing its carbon footprint by an estimated 35 percent.
“This new fuel cell technology has great promise and represents an important step for Coca-Cola in continuing to grow our business without growing the carbon footprint,” said Brian Kelley, president and GM, Coca-Cola North America Still Beverages and Supply Chain. “The Coca-Cola Company has committed to hold its overall worldwide manufacturing carbon emissions flat through 2015 from its 2004 level. We intend to do this while actually reducing emissions in the U.S. and other developed markets, improving energy efficiency and using cleaner forms of energy, like these fuel cells.”
Other customers announced at the Bloom launch include Bank of America, Cox Enterprises, eBay, FedEx Express, an operating company of FedEx Corp., Google and Staples.