Bring it On

Bloom Energy is introducing what looks like a 200kW fuel cell that runs on natural gas for about $700,000.  That compares pretty favorably with the current cost of at least $2,000 per KW to build a coal plant, especially when one factors in reduced distribution and pollution costs.  We have gobs of natural gas and are finding more all the time, and (unlike something like hydrogen) the distribution and storage infrastructure is already in place.  Hope it works.

I often critique new energy technologies here, and that critique is often confused with a hostility to new technologies.  This is far from the case.  Living here in Phoenix, I would love to have cheap solar cells to spread over my roof like carpet.  What I am opposed to is government subsidies for technologies that are not even close to economic compared to current alternatives.   I don't know the Bloom business model  (I am suspicious they have a large rent-seeking component if KP is funding them) but if they can make these work subsidy free, that's great.


  1. morganovich:

    looks interesting, but there's a great deal of info missing:

    how long does it last and are there any disposal difficulties?

    does it use reagents?

    what wastes are produced?

    what kind of uptime does it have?

    any catastrophic failure risks? (especially if it's a hydrogen cell)

  2. KTWO:

    I wish them well. They are speaking of big reductions in cost. That is the real story.

    Cost is about all hindering commercial fuel cells. But cost is also about all that limits trips to the moon.

    Natural gas fuel cells are not new but 200kw islarge. That will power roughly 70 houses.

    Today AFAIK the biggest markets are South Korea and Japan where NGFCs are sold as backup power supplies. Hospitals, etc. buy them.

    Both of those countries are willing to pay a premium to reduce air pollution.

  3. LoneSnark:

    As a backup power supply, sure. But the question is whether it is a good idea for the rest of us, which puts it not up against retail electricity rates, but against wholesale rates and other natural gas power plants. It seems reasonable to believe that a fuel cell would be able to more efficiently turn natural gas into electricity. Friction losses are a bitch. At that point, the only question is cost effectiveness: certainly these fuel cells will still cost more than a basic turbine, but will save on fuel costs...

  4. Dr. T:

    Point 1: The fuel cell costs are "low" due to large subsidies.

    Point 2: The fuel cell's solid oxides will have to be replenished regularly, so its ongoing costs will include the costs of the hydrocarbon fuels AND the (unstated and unknown) costs of replacement oxides.

    Point 3: The fuel cell uses natural gas or other hydrocarbon fuels, so it still produces carbon dioxide. (Not that I care, but they brag about a reduced carbon footprint compared with a coal powered electric plant. Comparison with a modern natural gas powered electric plant will show little reduction in CO2 production.)

    Point 4: Bloom Energy's press releases, web site, and public documents never describe the chemical compositions of the solid oxide, anode, cathode, and electrolyte. Solid oxide fuel cells typically require rare elements such as yttrium, zirconium, lanthanum, strontium or cesium, cerium, etc. Common metals such as nickel and chromium may also be present. Acquiring all these elements requires extensive mining and chemical extractions. These are not "green" processes. Plus, most of the above elements are toxic and will require the same types of disposal processes as lead or mercury.

    Once again "green" energy technology is being promoted through combinations of hidden costs (taxpayer-derived subsidies), exaggerations of efficiency, omission of maintenance costs, no information on toxic elements, no information on the equipment's lifespan, and no information on hazardous waste handling and exhausted fuel cell disposal costs.

    In case you wish to know: I'm a pathologist with a chemistry degree and toxicology training.

  5. Tim:

    The supply of platinum has always been a problem for fuel cells. I don't known if they have solved that. If they have not they the cost per cell will rise over time as demand for platinum rises.

  6. DOuglas2:

    In some parts of the country there is great hostility to new power-plants and great hostility to new rights-of-way for power-distribution.
    If large facilities were to replace their redundant backup generators (@$50k/ea.) with fuel-cells (@$200k/ea.) and found that the countinuing operating and maintenance cost of the fuel cell power was less than the grid power, then the grid power could become the secondary backup. The base load on the grid would go down, the need for land-clearance and towers for high-voltage lines would be reduced.

    Lots of "ifs".

  7. Bob Smith:

    The supply of platinum has always been a problem for fuel cells. I don’t known if they have solved that.

    Platinum (and rhodium) are the primary elements in automotive catalytic converters. The huge worldwide demand for these by the auto industry means prices will indeed have to increase dramatically if fuel cells become commonplace.

  8. Nobrainer:

    It's actually a bit tough to comment on the reduced distribution costs.

    Small [home?] generators may not be able to operate off the primary pipelines, meaning that, relative to large generators, they have to pay a premium for fuel and distribution of that fuel. E.g., my latest gas bill charged me $0.82/therm for gas and $.25/therm for distribution.

    If these fuel cells are as scalable as they're claimed to be, my money is on them being put into big plants rather than millions of tiny installations.

  9. John Moore:

    I hope this is a good deal, but retain skepticism...

    Folks have been working on fuel cells for a long time - for example, they were (are?) a candidate for "green" automobiles. They powered the Apollo spacecraft.

    In theory, a fuel cell is a really simple thing. It directly generates electricity from the catalyzed chemical reaction, so it has few moving parts - some valves, air blowers. It may (or may not) avoid unwanted combustion products that burning fuel produces - although a lot of fuel cells run their reactions at very high temperatures (think catalytic converter that produces electricity), so I would expect various by-products.

    I like the idea of distributed generation, if only because it would move power production out from under the government (i.e. the utility commissions that guarantee utilities are too expensive). However, from an engineering standpoint, centralization almost always wins in cost efficiency, for reasons including that by Nobrainer (fuel costs), fuel distribution costs, and having to send maintenance people and supplies around rather than having them all at one central place. The only economic advantages I can see are reduced electrical transmission costs (energy loss, cost of transmission facilities) and lower cost of production of energy compared to other technologies.

    I suspect this gadget may be only economical with rent seeking - it's "green" and it may indeed have a lower CO2 level than gas turbines (if it is more efficient).

    The company is very secretive, and it is appearing only slightly late of optimum for the launch of subsidized green energy stuff - in other words KP may have targeted the whole thing at cap-and-trade and green subsidies.

    It is the nature of big VC-funded companies to try to make a real big splash. It is also the case that most VC investments fail, because the businesses are speculative. That means that all their due diligence may not have shown that the technology is productive outside of a rent seeking world.

    Notice that a lot of the current customers are Silicon Valley software companies, which are often infested with and run by the far left and far green, and are willing to make grand green gestures at some expense (hey, it makes all their friends like the company, so it must be good for the brand, yada yada yada).

  10. Tim Worstall:

    "Point 2: The fuel cell’s solid oxides will have to be replenished regularly, so its ongoing costs will include the costs of the hydrocarbon fuels AND the (unstated and unknown) costs of replacement oxides."

    Well, sorta. It's a catalytic reaction so it's a question of whether the get gunged up with impurities in the fuel. Using hydrogen gets around this largely. As to the plates themselves, they do crack as a result of cycling up and down from room temp to 1,000 o C or so. a lot of effort is going into reducing this but it's still true that SOFCs are thought to be better suited to constant power applications rather than, say, cars, for this very reason (part of my work has been to do with how do you reduce this problem).

    "Solid oxide fuel cells typically require rare elements such as yttrium, zirconium, lanthanum, strontium or cesium, cerium, etc. Common metals such as nickel and chromium may also be present."

    Again, sorta. You don't need zirconium, you need zircon sand (Zr2O3) which is really very common. Not cesium but cerium. Yes, there are designs out there that use La, Ce, Sc and Y. None of them are particularly rare though.....maybe not produced in huge quantities but there's no basic shortage on the planet.

    As to other materials....the Bloom design uses stainless steel not the pure nickel that many other designs use (there are others that use steel as well) as the supporting structure.

    "The supply of platinum has always been a problem for fuel cells."

    Entirely different fuel cell technology. You're talking about PEM, this is SOFC. No platinum group metals used at all. Zircon sand, rare earths and steel is all you need for SOFCs.

    As to the actual prospects for the Bloom technology? From what I've been able to gather (they're not answering my questions on the details I'd like to know unfortunately) there's very little really new here. All of the things being pointed to I know other manufacturers have at least been trialling.

    In the end though the real question is cost. And they're not there yet. Maybe they will be, maybe they won't be. But I'm absolutely certain that someone will be over the next decade or two. For there's no particular reason why SOFCs should be expensive. Engineering reasons, yes, but no conceptual ones.

    As a rough shorthand I put SOFC technology at about where cell phones were in the mid to late 80s. Still several iterations short of becoming a mass, unsubsidised, technology. Bloom-s announcement hasn't changed this view.

  11. rxc:

    If people are concered right now about power lines near them, they are going to be even less happy about the new gas transmission and distribution pipeline that will be needed to get the gas to the fuel cells located locally. Also, think about it - when power lines go down, they arc a bit, trip a breaker, and go dead (usually). when a gas pipeline goes bad it releases a flammable (often explosive) cloud of vapor into the air, or into the ground surrounding the pipeline, or (unfortunately), into the building that houses the fuel cell. One of these happened in a DC suburb and the house was turned into matchsticks when it ignited. Also a few years ago, a group of campers happened to set up camp next to a pipeline just before it failed and killed them - the rescue workers sued the pipeline company because the grisly sight of the dead campers will haunt them forever. YOu NEVER want to live next to a pipeline - better a nuclear power plant...

  12. IgotBupkis:

    I haven't heard anything more about it since, but this was of interest in 2008:

    Lonnie Johnson's JTEC

  13. dearieme:

    "a fuel cell would be able to more efficiently turn natural gas into electricity. Friction losses are a bitch": no, it's not friction losses that limit turbine generation, it's the Thermodynamic Efficiency of the turbine as part of a heat engine. Fuel Cells aren't heat engines and escape that limitation.

  14. IgotBupkis:

    There appears to be something resembling a natural limit occurring around 65-odd percent conversion efficiency. Even Johnson's JTEC, which has no moving parts, maxes out around that point.

  15. Jeff:

    For an commercial/light industrial backup generator, it's way too pricey. I can buy a 2MW diesel for $900,000.