Feb 23 2010

The Bloom Box

I received numerous e-mails asking me to discuss the Bloom Box after it was featured on 60 Minutes this week. Energy production is a hot topic, which I think explains why this was such a big story. In reality, this is an interesting technology that will likely have useful applications – but it is not the green revolution.

The Bloom Box is essentially a generator – a type of fuel cell that is constructed of a stack of ceramic plates with different (secret) substances painted on either side. You feed fuel and oxygen in one end, and you get electricity out the other end.

I found it amusing how 60 Minutes tried to spin this into something more than it is – it’s a generator. The most likely fuel for the Bloom Box is natural gas, a fossil fuel. Natural gas is still somewhat abundant and cost effective, and there is already a distribution system for it. So in the end this is just another way to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.

During the interview it was mentioned that you could also feed bio-gas from landfills into the Bloom Box, in which case it would be “carbon neutral.” Well – it is more accurate to say that the fuel source is carbon neutral – not the Bloom Box itself, which depends on whatever fuel you feed into it. It’s like saying a car is carbon neutral if you put biofuel in its tank – true, but this is not a feature of the car itself.

Biogas is a legitimate green technology – using microbes to make methane (primarily) from manure and waste. At present this represents a small fraction of our energy needs, but there is potential for significant expansion.

What I found very odd about the 60 Minutes interview is when Leslie Stahl asked the inventor of Bloom Box if one could feed “solar” energy into the Bloom Box, and he repeated, “solar” – as if confirming her statement, but this was followed by an abrupt edit. I get the sense he said something qualifying after that edit that we did not get to hear – especially since I don’t know what he could be possibly talking about. How can you feed solar energy (in what form?) into a generator that burns natural gas or some equivalent?  It seemed like a desperate move to make this technology seem more “green” than it is.

Once again, when dealing with an energy technology, we have to put this into the proper perspective. The technology is not an energy source (so it will not solve our energy problems, as Stahl asked of Colin Powell – for some reason). It is not a means of storing energy. It is simply a means of converting fuel into electricity – in other words it is a generator or power plant.

There are already power plants that burn natural gas to run their generators. So this is nothing new.

The real promise this technology offers is portability, which could allow for small businesses and even homes to generate their electricity locally. This is actually a direction that energy production may be headed in, and it makes a lot of sense.

Back when electricity was first coming into existence as a major utility, the approach was distributed power production, with small local power plants. However, the state of the art in the 19th and early 20th centuries was coal burning (of course, still used today) which produces a great deal of pollution. In order to reduce the pollution in residential areas and big cities, power production was moved to remote locations and the grid was built to distribute electricity.

This system has some inefficiencies and vulnerabilities. Anyone who has lost power is familiar with one – power lines can go down, stations can break down, and then there is no electricity until the problem is fixed, which can take hours to days. There is also energy lost in transmitting electricity through wires over long distance (primarily from resistance) – these losses are estimated at 7.2%. That’s not bad, but still – it’s 7.2%.

Another inefficiency, however, is the heat that is wasted in production. Essentially, we waste heat in producing electricity from a fuel source, then transmit that electricity to a remote location where it is often used to generate heat (primarily in the Winter, but year round for hot water). Local energy production could use waste heat to heat air or water. Newer power plants do recover some of the waste heat to generate more electricity, making the power plant more efficient, but still this is not as efficient as using the heat where it is ultimately needed.

So there are significant advantages to producing electricity on site, and even capturing any waste heat for local use. At present, the Bloom Box costs about $700,000 per unit, which can run a small business like a Starbucks. This is way too expensive for the home. Bloom Box hopes to get the cost of a basic unit below $3,000 over the next 5 years, which seems optimistic, but if they can do it then they might be viable. If such units can produce electricity more cheaply than buying electricity off the grid, then they may become popular.

As always, the details are what will determine the viability of the Bloom Box for the home: how much will they cost up front, what are the maintenance costs, how reliable and safe will they be, how long will it take for a unit to pay for itself with reduced electricity costs? Also – if they produce electricity more cheaply than the grid, can a consumer generate more than they need and sell it to the power company? Be the first on your block to have one of these generators, and make money providing electricity to all your neighbors.

Of course, power companies can buy the current $700k units and place them in neighborhoods to put electricity into the grid and sell to their customers. They could do this rather than build a huge centralized power plant (like the one that just exploded near my house in CT  – which was a natural gas power plant). This technology can also be useful for remote areas where it is difficult to get power lines.

The next question is – do we have the supply of natural gas to start using it widely for electricity generation? For those homes that already have a natural gas supply this would be an easier install. Those without would need to first be put on the gas grid.

Also – we need to consider energy loss in the gas grid, which is estimated to be about 1-2%. This is better than the electrical grid (at 7.2%).

Conclusion

This technology is interesting, and it already is being used by large companies for local electricity generation. But it is not a “green revolution” nor a game changer. It is not a new source of energy. It may become an important method to move electricity generation to a more distributed local system, rather than the current centralized and grid distribution system. We need to learn more nitty-gritty details of the technology, and further it needs to be tested more for reliability, safety, and efficiency. We’ll know in 5-10 years, probably, what real role, if any, it will play in our energy future.

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