There're startups, and then there's Bloom Energy. The company invented the first power generator that uses solid-oxide fuel cells, which convert natural gas or renewable fuels such as biogas into electricity without any pollution-causing combustion. The Bloom Energy Server, known as the Bloom Box, contains ceramic wafers made of a "sand-like powder" instead of more expensive materials like acid or molten carbonate. Each Bloom Box is about the size of a parking spot, weighs about 20,000 pounds, and costs $800,000. The servers provide 200kW of power, enough for a 30,000-sq.-ft. office building. Bloom Energy launched the Bloom Box in 2010. It produces power for such major customers as Wal-Mart, Google, and eBay.
To add more clients to its customer base, 2012 Bloom Energy announced plans to go bi-coastal through the opening of a manufacturing facility in Delaware. The plant's construction is scheduled to be completed by mid-2013.
When the Bloom Box was launched, customers received a 30% tax credit from the federal government, and California companies received an additional $2,500-per-kW state subsidy, which dropped the price to $310,000 for one box. Without any incentives, Bloom Boxes are substantially more expensive than using electricity supplied from the traditional power grid.
The first Bloom Boxes were used as backup generators in lieu of the traditional diesel-burning backup generators. Ideally, the company aims to market a smaller generator to residential customers for about $3,000, but that technology could take as long as 10 years to develop. The current-size Bloom Boxes can power about 150 homes, but no municipal customers have signed on yet.
Bloom Energy didn't invent solid-oxide fuel cells -- the technology traces its roots back to the 1930s from research by two Swiss scientists. Siemens Energy and the DOE have been major researchers and developers of solid-oxide fuel-cell technology over the years. Bloom Energy came about in 2001, when KR Sridhar, a NASA scientist, set up shop at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley to develop a marketable product. Initially called Ion America, the company secured funding from Kleiner Perkins and spent about $400 million to develop the Bloom Box. – less