Large corporations have been testing a new device that can generate power on the spot, without being connected to the electric grid. Will we have one in every home someday?

In the world of energy, the Holy Grail is a power source that’s inexpensive and clean, with no emissions. Well over 100 start-ups in Silicon Valley are working on it, and one of them, Bloom Energy, is about to make public its invention: a little power plant-in-a-box they want to put literally in your backyard.

You’ll generate your own electricity with the box and it’ll be wireless. The idea is to one day replace the big power plants and transmission line grid, the way the laptop moved in on the desktop and cell phones supplanted landlines.

It has a lot of smart people believing and buzzing, even though the company has been unusually secretive – until now.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

The Bloom Box: An Energy Breakthrough?
First Customers Say Energy Machine Works And Saves Money
60 Minutes, Feb. 18, 2010

Category: Video

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15 Responses to “Energy Breakthrough: The Bloom Box Fuel Cell”

  1. Moss says:

    From what I understand those that installed it got a a 50% tax write off (Statet and Fed) plus it needs to be fueled by gas/diesel or something. Also wonder how it operates in bad weather such as snow, very clod climates or dusty air.

  2. Joe Retail says:

    This is remarkable “gee-whiz” reporting. Example: “bakes the sand and cuts it into little squares.” Translation: produces silicon.

    A fuel cell that runs on solar energy? Huh?

    Get you off the grid – no more wires! Of course there’s that pesky natural gas connection …

    And they’re apparently running these commercially … well, then it should be easy to determine if it works or not, right?

    Does anyone do real research before producing these shows? Is my cynical side showing?

  3. AJS says:

    Yeah, too bad it will take 27 years to return the investment. There are many better things to do with that kind of $.

  4. Congrats to BloomEnergy for making the News and 60 Minutes, but- HELLO? Fuel Cells are available for every house in America who has a natural gas line. State and Feds pay for 40%, Assembly Bill 811 finances the rest. Less expensive than most solar systems and the size of a refridgerator.

  5. The general feedback from the firms using this is its a very big advance

  6. hgordon says:

    Unless they have a high-tech production facility stashed away somewhere, $400 million seems like a lot to have dropped on a company that doesn’t seem to be much beyond the production prototype stage of development, but it will be interesting to see this play out. Besides Colin Powell at their rollout, I wonder why Al Gore wasn’t on the list – last I heard, he was one of John Doerr’s partners at Kleiner Perkins.

  7. hgordon says:

    A bit more math – the numbers bouncing around are $700k-$800k for 100kW, which works out to $7-$8 per watt. Solar panels cost (wholesale) around $3/watt these days, but you have the additional cost of mounting the panels and inverting the DC to AC to tie into the power grid. So if you ignore the value of the land you are covering, and 100kW is a lot panels, plus you don’t get 100kW continuous because of the earth’s rotation. So depending on your location, you might need 400kW of panels to produce output comparable to a 100kW Bloom generator. Figure the installed solar panels cost $6-$7 per watt, and you need 4x to get comparable output, so the equivalent solar cost is $25 per equivalent watt, or at least 3x the capital cost of the Bloom generator.

    The missing piece to the equation is the cost of the natural gas (or equivalent) required to power a 100kW generator. A nice assessment is found here –
    - Costs per year for 1 million kWh from natural gas from centralized power sources is $100,000.

    - 1000 cubic foot of natural gas gives 1,034,000 BTU which can be converted at 80% efficiency, hence 827,200 BTU of power which is equivalent to 242 kWh, costing $12 for the fuel. So 12/242 = $ 0.05 per kWh incorporating fuel costs only. Which amounts to a total fuel cost of $50,000 for 1 million kWh.

    - At an investment cost of $800,000 dollars it would take approximately 15 years (800,000 / 50,000) to pay back investments, excluding the costs of connecting to the grid.


    Just to wrap up, 1 million kWh is 10,000 hours of operation of a 100kW generator. There are 8760 hours in a year, so using 1 million kWh is an okay approximation for 1 year of power from a 100kW generator. Bottom line – this seems to be more efficient than power from a natural gas power plant with steam turbines, and it is possible to use localized power distribution to save grid costs. If natural gas costs don’t change, then total operating costs between the generator and equivalent solar are probably comparable over a 20 year operating life. So it’s not a bad thing, though it’s hardly a miracle solution.

  8. bdg123 says:

    I’m quite dubious that this is a game changer. Fuel cells have been in use for a LONG time. A LONG time. The only difference I saw in this unit was that it was modular. ie, Because the basic unit is scalable within a particular manufacturing process. That means the manufacturing process is scalable. We don’t know any efficiency numbers or any specifics about the technology but there are half a dozen fuel cell providers who have been in the space for a long time. We shall see.

  9. hgordon says:

    @bdg123 -

    This is an interesting story, but perhaps for reasons other than specifics of the energy technology …

    1. Besides Telsa Motors, this seems to be Silicon Valley’s first really big “alternative energy” investment to see the light of day, so the investors threw a really big “coming out” party. Not much in the way of content, but it’s been a while since the valley had much to celebrate.

    2. If Bloom’s manufacturing process is truly scalable in the same manner as semiconductor technologies (they are using a silicon substrate), Silicon Valley may provide some strategic advantages in driving down the cost as volumes increase.

    3. One of the articles I browsed quoted Vinod Khosla (former Kleiner Perkins partner now investing in energy project) as saying that Bloom was building a “really big” manufacturing facility in Mumbai. So that may be where a big chunk of the $400 million went. If true, it is interesting that the money is getting invested offshore. So much for rebuilding Silicon Valley …

  10. bdg123 says:

    Tesla Motors is an even bigger waste of time and investor’s money. It was flawed from the very beginning. I would never have invested a dime of anyone’s money in the company.

    Here’s an important point to remember about Silicon Valley. One most people don’t really understand. Silicon Valley is successful for one main reason. In California, specifically SV, there is a culture of economic risk-taking. Not that there is somehow this concentration of great genius in SV as the aura is perceived. There is genius everywhere. That includes Zimbabwe – an economic shithole of the earth. The separation of SV from other places is a very unique coming together of capital, government and innovation in an objective to take economic risk. Their failures are many and amount to substantially more than their successes. But, that’s okay if managed properly. The game is one of prudent risk-taking. And that is a winning game if managed properly. One that very few bureaucrats and members of our society really seem to understand anymore as we have replaced that dynamic over the last forty years with pushing around paper in the utterly incompetent finance industry.

    Re your remarks, I respectfully disagree. There is no reason other than energy technology. Anything else is hype and a waste of time. ie, Ultimate failure.

    There is no way to know if the manufacturing process can eventually scale. That seems to me to be an obvious intent with the architecture. That it is modular and the attempt at scaling is one thing. Actually being able to achieve scaling and high speed, assembly line production is something else. Given they are way behind and way over budget tells me they aren’t meeting their manufacturing or scaling objectives. We have seen this exact same dynamic time and again with new ideas. EESTOR is another recent example of this dynamic. A company with incredible promise that has become nothing more than a company with incredible promise because they cannot achieve their manufacturing objectives. Another huge money pit for VC funds. It’s way too early to determine anything from this story of BloomBox other than it is a money pit that is behind schedule. And that it has some unquantifiable promise uncomparable to anything else because they have published nothing and remain very secretive. Likely secretive not because of a new technology but because they aren’t meeting their objectives.

    And Vinod Khosla is nobody’s genius in my estimation. I am terribly unimpressed with his abilities. Although he somehow convinces a lot of people he is quite impressive.

  11. hgordon says:


    Slightly off topic, but you might enjoy this “Secret History of Silicon Valley”, which credibly traces the emergence of Silicon Valley to DOD funding:

    I don’t think we disagree about anything – I just found the “dog & pony” show yesterday to be interesting theater. Bottom line is that this is old technology that might have a new spin with improved manufacturing techniques, and if so, they potentially could make a lot of money, though I’m not certain that you could call this truly “green”.

  12. John Wellman says:

    The US already has two legitimate fuel cell companies: FCE ( and United Technologies ( I hope Bloom turns into our third legitimate fuel cell company.

    Bloom seems to have an interesting product, but nothing about Bloom’s solid oxide fuel cell is revolutionary. Until Bloom proves that their fuel cell stack life exceeds the industry standard, nothing about the company can be considered revolutionary.

    Fuel cells are chemical reactors that happen to generate electricity and heat. Home and industrial fuel cells will be tied to the grid to export power when their electricity generation exceeds site demand. The claim that the fuel cells are wireless is incorrect and borders on deception. Our electric grid is transforming from a transmission mechanism into an energy bank. Renewables will be one of the cornerstone energy “deposit” mechanisms to augment our existing generation platforms.

    The truly revolutionary energy issue is the utilities de-linking their profits from electrical sales volume. In essence, the utilities are exchanging efficiency to offset electricity price increases. It is far cheaper for the utilities to encourage people to economize under the reality of electricity price increases than to continue to build new power plant to satisfy electricity demand.

    Smart meters and time-of-use metering (TOU) will allow the utilities to change electricity prices every 15 minutes. This level of resolution will allow the utilities to punish consumers and push demand down to meet supply. Utilities retain healthy and increasing profit margins, while they decrease electricity sales and emissions. As electrical rates rise, the utilties will gradually replace existing generation capacity with solar, wind and possibly fuel cells. De-linkage will make Copenhagen irrelevant.

    Bloom should be commended for doing excellent work developing investment, political leverage and media coverage. I hope my company, FuelCell Energy can ride the Bloom publicity wave to deploy our 2.8 MW DFC 3000B3 powerplant, while my start-up energy metering and consumption efficiency company ( prepares people and businesses for TOU metering and demand charges.


  13. bdg123 says:

    Video looks interesting. I guess that really isn’t surprising if I think about it. The technology isn’t what I would call green but if anything helps us get out from under our reliance on the rest of the world for anything, I’m all for it. Somehow manufacturing in Mumbai doesn’t seem to meet that objective.

  14. hgordon says:

    “Khosla pointed to fuel-cell startup Bloom Energy, which is building a “massive” facility in Mumbai, and said that companies are building testing centers in India to take advantage of the country’s engineering talent.”

  15. bdg123 says:

    When global finance and globalization collapses, and it will, let’s see what Vinod has to say about Mumbai’s future involvement in green technology. The Indian government will be pretty busy with their own problems. One of them will be Mumbai.