Clean, Quiet, Affordable: It’s Energy Nirvana

In a 1974 concert review, the music critic Jon Landau famously wrote, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

After talking with Peter Light, I feel like I’ve seen our energy future, and its name is Bloom Energy.

OK, a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, because Bloom isn’t the only game in town. But with customers like Google, eBay and Walmart, and funding from the likes of Kleiner Perkins, it’s clearly doing something right.

Bloom Energy makes a product that produces clean energy using renewable fuel with low CO2 emissions and virtually no noise. It can produce enough power to handle a data center and does so locally, right on site, says Light, who is senior products manager for Bloom.

The company traces its roots to the NASA Mars program. Bloom’s founder and CEO, Dr. K.R. Sridhar, was on a Mars program team that came up with a fuel cell that produced oxygen (so astronauts could breath) and hydrogen (to power the spacecraft) from electricity generated by a solar panel. Sridhar and his team later figured out that by essentially running the process in reverse, they could efficiently generate electricity without combustion and at low cost.

That vision became reality in 2008 when the company shipped its first fuel cell, known as the Energy Server. Here’s how it works. A renewable biofuel reacts with oxygen in the presence of a catalyst. Hydrogen is extracted from the fuel and joins with oxygen to make water. In the process, the reaction gives up electrons – aka, electricity.

Energy Servers are made using low-cost materials, including a sand-like substance instead of precious metals. “The key benefits are it’s clean, reliable and affordable,” Light says, stressing the “and.”  “There are other forms of power generation which can be clean and maybe even affordable but maybe aren’t fully dependable, meaning you don’t know when they’re going to produce energy. Bloom in contrast can provide power 24×7 so you can get clean power from it wherever you need it.”

“Bloom is essentially flipping that paradigm by saying, you can have on-site clean power as your primary power source, and have the grid as backup,” he says.

That’s another important point – you can put the Energy Server right next to your data center, so you’re not losing power over transmission lines. And it’s quiet enough that you can easily carry on a conversation right next to an Energy Server; try that with a traditional backup generator.

The base Energy Server system produces 200Kw of power, but you can put lots of them together to generate whatever you need. Bloom is currently building a system for Delmarva Power and Light, a utility in Delaware, that will supply 30 megawatts of power.

An installation the company did for an NTT America data center in San Jose is more typical, however. “[NTT America] saw the future potential to ultimately do away with the traditional forms of backup power generation,” Light says. Typically, data center operators have backup generators or UPSs that kick in during an electrical outage. Such systems work fine, he notes, but they’re costly – especially considering they are rarely used.

“Bloom is essentially flipping that paradigm by saying, you can have on-site clean power as your primary power source, and have the grid as backup,” he says. Companies including Google, eBay and NTT America are taking steps in that direction by using Energy Servers in conjunction with traditional power sources. The 500 kilowatt Energy Server installation at NTT America’s San Jose data center, for example, is supplying about 8% of the data center’s energy needs, he says.

As for cost, Light says the systems typically pay for themselves in 4 to 5 years. Given the company is now working on projects with 10- to 20-year time spans, that’s an attractive figure.

To learn more about Bloom Energy and its Energy Servers, listen click on the link below to hear the full interview with Peter Light.

Tags: , , ,