With the recent unveiling of the bloom box and it’s large, amazing and world changing promises comes the question that, ultimately, only time will tell: “Will Bloom blossom or bust?”. The invention is innovative, forward thinking and certainly interesting: a compact fuel cell that boasts high output, no pollution, and one that everyone can have on the side of the house to save money and be independent of the grid. The claims are pleasant to the ears, but bring questions about the details and implications.
The grand scheme of the company seems to involve the vision that every American household will have a bloom box to save money and be independent from the grid. This claim is intriguing because each month’s utility bill is a reminder to the potential to go off the grid, go solar, or invest in wind power, to transition from fossil fuel to free fuel. And this is where the first question arises, what will power my household bloom box? According to the CEO, the box can run on natural gas or biofuels (1). This puts a damper on some of the initial excitement, even if the excitement wasn’t instigated by the company. Running the box on natural gas means that you may be removed from the electricity grid, or at least from your dependence on it, but attached to the gas grid run by oil and gas manufacturers and utility companies.
Another question, now that we established that the bloom is dependent upon a gas supplier of some kind, is, how does the bloom compare to current established electric generation methods that use the same fuel? Take a natural gas combined cycle power plant, that turns natural gas into electricity with an impressive 60% efficiency (2) and a current rough average electric rate of ~$0.10/kWh; how will the bloom box compare? According to the data sheet, the box operates with an efficiency greater than 50%, the precise efficiency isn’t published. To gain some insight, Ebay’s testimonial can be analyzed. The CEO has said that its 5 installed bloombox’s has saved over $100,000 USD in the nine months they have been operating (or about $11,000/month). Big numbers, but attempting to determine the payback period at a total cost of $700k x 5 = $3.5 million is difficult, as the savings so not even cover the interest on a 5%APR loan, meaning, the bloom box may not be a wise financial investment until production costs come down quite a bit.
So, if the attraction is not free fuel or financial returns, why bloom? The bloom does not pollute! At least not as much as other electricity producers, they claim- and that is certainly appealing these days. The company claims these emissions in lb/MW-hr (3), where as a leading combined cycle system claims these emissions (pp. 8 ) in ppm (2), making it difficult to determine which is cleaner, but if it does, the more push policy makers make on clean electricity generation, the more advantage the bloom could have.
There are a couple of policy concerns that arise with the thought of the bloom revolutionizing the American electricity generation portfolio. Firstly, what happens when say, 80% of Americans buy a bloom and go off the grid, leaving 20% who may not be able to afford the bloom with 100% of the operation and maintenance of the old grid? It may become necessary to create policy to subsidize the old grid to keep it affordable, not unlike what many public transit systems do for those who can’t or do not want to own a personal vehicle. Secondly, policy could be established to support the bloom by taxing polluting emissions or establishing the cap and trade system that is currently getting attention at the Capital. If the bloom truly emits fewer pollutants than such policy could help sales.
As stated above, the claims are quite fantastic, and if they prove true the bloom could become a successful business, but only time will tell if policy or mass manufacturing (i.e.- cost reductions) will allow the bloom box to become truly disruptive technology.
1. Sridhar, KR. The Bloom Box. s.l. : CBS, February 21, 2010.
2. GE Energy. H System. GE Energy. [Online] 2010. http://www.gepower.com/prod_serv/products/gas_turbines_cc/en/h_system/index.htm.
3. Bloomenergy. Data Sheet. Bloomenergy. [Online] 2010. http://www.bloomenergy.com/products/data-sheet/.