An Outlook

Amid the discussions concerning America’s energy future, the production, distribution, and demand for electricity has yet to come to the forefront. Discussions about foreign oil consumption and oil exploration, clean energy alternatives (including both solar and wind), etc. dominate discussions at the national, regional, and even local levels. And while each of these discussions is important to our future success and competitiveness, supplying America’s businesses and residences with affordable, reliable, and (as much as possible) clean electricity is an enormous challenge that we will face far sooner than most seem to realize.

According to the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability, electricity “is one of the largest and most capital-intensive sectors of the economy. Total asset value is estimated to exceed $800 billion, with approximately 60% invested in power plants, 30% in distribution facilities, and 10% in transmission facilities.” They go on to state that America currently operates approximately 10,000 power plants with a thermal efficiency rate of just 33% (due in part to the inability of central power generation to recycle heat). Additionally, the majority of the existing capacity is at least 30 years old.

While the above information reflects the current state of affairs, the Energy Information Administration states that “281 gigawatts of new generating capacity will be needed by 2025 to meet the growing demand for electricity. This is equivalent to 937 new 300-megawatt power plants.”

Bloom Energy servers at eBay’s headquarters.

Then there is the challenge facing the transmission of electricity. The Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability states that America has 157,000 miles of high voltage electric transmission lines, and even though electricity demand has increased by 25% since 1990, the construction of transmission facilities has decreased by 30%. They go on to state, “The result is grid congestion, which can mean higher electricity costs because customers cannot get access to lower-cost electricity supplies, and because of higher line losses. Transmission and distribution losses are related to how heavily the system is loaded. U.S.-wide transmission and distribution losses were about 5% in 1970, and grew to 9.5% in 2001, due to heavier utilization and more frequent congestion. Congested transmission paths, or ‘bottlenecks,’ now affect many parts of the grid across the country.”

As an example they cite the Tennessee Valley Authority whose annual transactions on the transmission system numbered less than 20,000 in 1990. Today they number over 250,000 transactions, which the system was never designed to accommodate.

With all these challenges in mind there are companies that are looking toward the future in unique and exciting ways. One such company is Bloom Energy in Sunnyvale, California (you may have watched a segment on them during a recent 60 Minutes episode on CBS).

Bloom Energy currently manufactures what they call Bloom’s Energy Servers designed for businesses (residential applications are still several years away, according to their publicist). These servers are composed of solid oxide fuel cells that produce “clean, reliable, affordable electricity at the customer site.” In other words, instead of electricity being produced elsewhere and then transmitted across country to your business, the electricity is produced right at the business itself.

Fuel cells have been around for a while, the most typical being “hydrogen” cells. Bloom’s cells differ markedly, however. Unlike traditional technologies, Bloom’s fuel cells use a common “sand-like” ceramic-type powder rather than precious metals (platinum, for example) or corrosive acids; they can convert fuel into electricity at twice the rate of some existing technologies; they can run on either fossil fuel or renewable resources; and they are capable of both energy generation and storage.

A Bloom Energy Server is roughly the size of a standard parking space and generates 100KW of power, which – according to their Web site – “is enough to meet the baseload needs of 100 average homes or a small office building…day and night…” If you need more power for your business, you simply add more Energy Servers.

Each Energy Server uses a patented solid oxide fuel cell technology, with thousands of fuel cells making up each Server. Each cell can produce 25W, which is enough to power a light bulb. In order to attain more power, the individual cells are sandwiched, along with metal interconnect plates, into a fuel cell stack. A few of these together (about the size of a loaf of bread) is enough to power an average home.

An individual fuel cell made of sand.

Bloom’s Energy Servers contain multiple stacks that are “aggregated together” into a power module, and then multiple power modules are assembled with a common fuel input and electrical output to form a complete system.

These Energy Servers typically operate on either natural gas or biofuels. In the case of natural gas, this affords businesses to enter into long-term contracts with their gas provider resulting in considerable savings and predictable costs throughout the term of the contract. According to Bloom Energy’s Web site, a typical business customer can recover their cost of investment in 3 – 5 years.

Additionally, business customers can reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 40% – 100% (depending on the type of fuel they use) compared to electricity delivered through the U.S. grid system. Indeed, Energy Servers that operate on renewable fuels (such as biogas), are carbon neutral systems. So it is now possible for businesses to utilize green technology without prohibitive cost concerns.

Bloom’s Energy Servers are already being utilized by businesses across the country including stalwarts like Google, Coke, Staples, FedEx, and eBay. So this isn’t a technology that we have to wait for: it is here now and available to businesses. According to reports a single Energy Server unit costs approximately $3,000, so the equipment, itself, isn’t cost prohibitive. And with return-on-investment within 3 – 5 years, it seems reasonable to assume that the demand for Bloom’s Energy Servers will be high.

So, in the more immediate future, imagine businesses here on the Door Peninsula utilizing these Energy Servers for the electrical needs. Even resorts can benefit from this technology while reducing their carbon imprint. And further down the line, imagine bundled fuel cells – approximately the size of a toaster – providing all the electricity for your home…right at your home while significantly reducing pollutants! It’s an intriguing and exciting prospect that should appeal to virtually everyone.