Bloom Energy’s Fuel Cells Will Power iCloud and Siri

Posted on April 23rd, 2012 by

Apple has just confirmed that they are building a 4.8 MW fuel cell farm for their data center in Maiden, North Carolina. 24 units of Bloom’s Energy Servers will be added to their existing 20 MW solar farm, which together will power the data center where information from iCloud and the voice-recognition software Siri is hosted.


How does the Bloom Box work? 

Fuel cells are driven by electro-chemical reactions very similar to batteries. The main difference is that instead of acting as an energy storage unit (storing chemical energy), which is depleted when used and has to be recharged or disposed of, fuel cells runs on an external source of fuel. There has to be a constant stream of fuel for the electricity generation to take place. A good way of looking at it is that fuel cells are small power generators.




As can be seen on the illustration above, the two components required to induce the electro-chemical reaction is methane (CH4) and oxygen (O2). Methane is the main component in natural gas, which is the fuel source that runs most Bloom units today. The fuel cells can also run on biogas, which can be produced by animal waste, landfill waste, algae or any other organic matter.


Is this really a zero-pollution technology?

Depending on the fuel type, Bloom Energy claims that the carbon footprint can be reduced by 40%-100% compared to using electricity from the U.S. grid. There is no combustion involved, meaning combustion-related climate gases such as SOx and NOx are not released into the atmosphere.

CEO of Bloom Energy, KR Sridhar, says the technology only is a bridge to the future when renewable fuels become prevalent. The bloom boxes can use renewable energy sources as a fuel, which will yield net zero carbon footprints, but in the meantime is a feasible solution to partly reduce pollution.

The Bloom boxes that will be installed on Apple’s Maiden data center will be using natural gas, which is in the lower end of the spectrum. In order for Apple to label the facility renewable, biogas has to be produced to offset the emissions caused by spending natural gas. About half the natural gas is needed by Bloom’s fuel cells to output the same amount of power from a typical gas turbine.


No need for the utility grid

One of Bloom Energy’s main selling points is independence from the utility grid.  This means that companies that invest in Bloom units are less reliant on power failures and increasing electricity prices.

In the long run, KR Sridhar, hopes that there will be a bloom box in every home, replacing the utility grid altogether


People have tried fuel cells since the 1830’s 

What is so special about the Bloom Boxes?  After all, this is not the first time fuel cells have been in the news. As of 2010, no public company in the industry had yet become profitable.

Bloom Energy’s website says their fuel cells can generate power at 9-11 cents per kilowatt-hour, including the price of fuel, maintenance, and hardware.  They credit this to the cheap materials that their technology is built on. However, the cost-competitive of their technology is heavily dependent on government and state subsidies. In fact, Bloom and its customers placed first on the Self-Generation Incentive Program in California, and had received as much as $218.5 million in subsidies just in 2010.

Apple has joined the ranks of eBay, Wallmart, FedEX, Bank of America, Google and other high-profile companies as customers of Bloom Energy.  It will be interesting to see where the Bloom Box is ten years from now.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of  the author, Mathias Aarre Mæhlum. He runs EnergyInformative, where you can find information about renewable and sustainable sources of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal. 

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3 People have left comments on this post

» jsm said: { Apr 23, 2012 - 08:04:37 }

Once again, Bloom is at it positioning their technology as a magical green energy box. SOFC’s (solid oxide fuel cells, which is what Bloom is) are typically powered by natural gas and provide distributed generation benefits. However, they are about as efficient at generating electricity from natural gas as a modern combined cycle gas turbine and produce roughly the same carbon emissions. They NOT produce “100%” less carbon emissions unless one were to sequester all the carbon (which could also be done in the case of a turbine). It’s a good technology, but vastly mis-positioned by both Bloom, their VC’s (Kleiner Perkins), and the press

» Mathias Aarre Mæhlum said: { Apr 27, 2012 - 10:04:45 }

While I do agree that the marketing is definitely one of the strong sides of Bloom Energy, I also think their technology has many benefits to bring to the table.

What you say about carbon emissions and efficiency when it comes to fuel cells vs. gas turbines is completely true, but Bloom Boxes do offer a more scalable solution, and certainly a much better alternative to coal.

» Jacob Miller said: { Jul 16, 2012 - 12:07:44 }


Federal Lawsuit Regarding Bloom Energy

“Buried deep in the permit application, in Table 1 on page 161 of a 163-page application, was the number 884. On that page, under penalty of perjury, Bloom officially told the world that its energy servers emit 884 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

Also buried on page 161 of the permit application is a Table 2 notation that says these 235 “clean” servers would emit 22.56 pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per day. But Delaware, like other states, regulates VOC emissions at far lower levels (Maryland, for instance, regulates boat repair shops that emit more than 15 pounds per day). Moreover, if the same amount of power had been generated by combined cycle gas turbines, only 0.249 pounds of VOCs would be emitted daily. That’s 90 times less pollution!
To top it off, because of the Bloom servers’ low efficiency and high capital cost, Delaware citizens will pay Bloom over $200 per megawatt hour of power delivered to their electricity transmission grid. But in January 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Agency said the projected “levelized” cost of electricity over the next 30 years from advanced gas-fired combined cycle power stations is $65.50 per MWH.

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