The introduction of the ‘bloom box’ into the market in February this year caused a stir on a mega scale. Everyone fell over themselves to congratulate Bloom Energy and humanity on solving everything with technology and entrepreneurial spirit once more. The govinator himself described it as the ‘future of energy’.Venture capitalists have reportedly poured $400m into Bloom Energy’s project since the project began eight years ago. Twenty companies, including Wal-Mart and Google, are trying out the device. Even the former oil enamoured Bush administration’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, has miraculously seen the light and joined Blooms Board. And, look, you can’t blame them. It’s pretty exciting stuff; ceramic fuel cell technology. Looking at the solid oxide fuel cells made by US Bloom or Australian company Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd makes you want to run out and buy one and then go to sleep cuddling it while your partner looks on with disgust.
In a nutshell, a cell can be anywhere between the size of a toaster to the size of a car. It takes in a variety of hydrogen rich fuels including natural gas and biogass, converts it incredibly efficiently using chemical reactions (no combustion) into heat and electricity, and emits a fraction of the greenhouse gases of pretty much everything else. Units can be shipped around and installed anywhere regardless of grid access. Users can sell energy back to the grid. It’s also relatively affordable (for a resident of the first world): a home unit by CFC Ltd costs about $10, 000, while Blooms massive corporate cells (that can power a city block) cost around US$800, 000. But, there is more to the hype than the green geek attributes of what essentially looks like whitegoods.
The cells capture the public imagination. They represent a future where we all glide around in white hemp robes and communicate with plants through our version 58 iphone. In this future, we have been forgiven for the stupidity of our environmentally nonchalant ancestors. The simplicity of the cell itself, it’s use of ceramic and ink as opposed to the brutality of combustion lends it a sense of returning to innocence. Except that in this story, eden awaits us in the next century. The mind races with science fiction images; shining glass pinnacles of a futurist city nestled within a forest. Mysterious digital gypsies set up camp in the desert to roast some strange new species on their fuel cell. Children play in a field of flowers, fuel cell powered computerised doctorbot close by- just in case. Etc, etc.
There’s another element to this technology that has been less touched upon in the midst of all the champage popping. It’s an aspect to the technology that’s slightly more radical than many of it’s proponents may be comfortable with, if they thought about it’s long term implications. What happens to the energy industry when you start encouraging people to become energy self sufficient?
The act of shifting the production of energy to the consumer promts a flurry of questions, none of which can yet be answered. If these products became standard in every home, would it mark the end of large power stations? The end of the grid? What would the flow on affect be to other arms of the energy industry such as oil? Are we witnessing a democratisation of industry in general or something else alltogether?
Companies such as PG&E may be uncomfortable to know that Blooms founder, KR Sridar has aspirations beyond putting a new product on the market. He wants to start a new energy industry. His vision of the world doesn’t have alot of room in it for the PG&Es. “ I quit doing my NASA work because I believe this particular technology can change the world,” says Sridhar. “Just like developing nations leapfrogged over fixed telephony to mobile, we think our technology will allow developing nations to do the same thing for electricity.”
Unfortunately the technology is still out of reach for many in the third and the first world. The cost of producing the units will go down, and production (which doesn’t meet current demand) will gain traction, but this could take a while if the political environment isn’t friendly. Embarrassingly, Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd. started selling to Germany before the value of their product was even acknowleged in Australia. The twentieth century Australian regulatory environment doesn’t allow energy generated by fuel cells to be sold back to the grid for a decent price, while coal power is essentially subsidised. It will change, eventually, with the right pressure.. but knowing how slow these things happen, change may not come soon enough. We can’t just fantasise about that city in the forest and wait for technology distributed through a market to solve everything. Heres a commie suggestion; lets make the technology mandatory, set a target, pour real funding into it’s development, and reduce our levels of consumption. If the govinator can turn green, anything’s possible!