Work on fannish projects ground to a halt this evening when I discovered my Google Reader account was full of links to an interesting energy story about a product launch by a Silicon Valley start-up. As some of you will know, my day job is in energy economics. Specifically I study electricity generation. So any new development in that business is of interest. Given that The Gubbernator turned up for the press conference, that Colin Powell is on the board of the company, and executives from the likes of Google, eBay, Walmart, FedEx and Coca Cola were on hand to express support, this could be a game-changer.
The product is essentially a cost-effective fuel cell. A fuel cell (very simply) is a device that takes in oxygen and a fuel, passes them over an active surface, and causes the fuel to combine with the oxygen creating electricity. Chemically it is the same as burning the fuel, but practically it has the potential to be much more efficient. Bloom Energy claims to have realized that potential. It claims to have technology that will connect to your existing natural gas supply and generate electricity for less than it costs to buy it from the grid.
Economically there are still questions to be answered. Google has been testing the devices, and claims to be very happy with their reliability and efficiency. Whether that will continue over a number of years, and in climates less balmy than California’s, remains to be seen.
Environmentally the jury is also out. The Bloom Box, as it is known, currently consumes natural gas and emits CO2. Because it does so much more efficiently than doing the same process in a power station it could drastically cut emissions, but it doesn’t do away with them altogether, not does it solve the problem of reliance on a limited natural resource. It is possible that the device could be made to work on a different fuel, for example hydrogen, but I haven’t yet found any discussion of that. Also the manufacture of fuel cells is a complex technological process that may involve other pollutants. One thing I can guarantee is that somewhere an environmental campaign group is busy putting together a press release denouncing the Bloom Box as a disaster for the planet.
Initially the devices will sell to business such as the ones that turned up at the press conference. The cost of electricity is a major headache for most businesses, and the current $700,000+ price tag puts the boxes well out of the reach of the average householder. However, the company will continue to develop the product, and economies of scale are bound to make manufacturing cheaper as the business ramps up. According to the Financial Times, Bloom hopes to have the cost down to $3000 in 10 years.
One other thing of interest is that the reaction between natural gas and oxygen has another by-product: water. This may be of interest to people in California which, as I’m sure you know, is a desert, and likely to become more so if climate forecasts are correct. I have no idea whether the quantities will be significant.
It is all too early to jump to any definite conclusions, but it does look like interesting times may be ahead for the electricity industry.