An Energy Game Changer?

Cheap, clean energy has been the goal of many separate companies over the years.  In high school Economics (about 15 years ago) I researched Ballard Power (BLD.TO) which was supposed to provide energy using a hydrogen fuel cell and emitting only water.  At the time, the company stood on the forefront of technology and had various contracts with car manufacturers and power providers, a quick view of how it’s stock has been doing since the technology crash 10 years ago shows that if it does have some kind of super technology, nobody is really buying it, which to me is a failure.  On 60 minutes a few weeks ago I saw a feature on Bloom Energy.  This company is making similar claims as Ballard Power (and other fuel cell companies have made) of clean, cheap power.

Fuel cells have been around since the 1830s – generally they require super expensive materials like platinum and are prone to breakdowns.  According to the 60-minutes report, this fuel cell is different – it uses beach sand and cheap alloys as part of the box and the fuel cell uses various fuels, such as biogas, piped-in natural gas, and solar power, along with oxygen to create power.  The creator of the box thinks that within 10 years, these boxes (assuming efficiencies gained through production) should cost approximately $3,000.

Here’s what I see as a few of the implications of this technology:

Energy costs could be fixed: Right now, consumers don’t know how much energy will cost in 5 to 10 years.  If these boxes were able to do what is claimed, a “Bloom Box” coupled with electric vehicle technology could significantly reduce or at least fix individual and business energy costs, which is not the case right now.  If oil were to spike to $200 a barrel, consumers could have the opportunity to insulate themselves from this cost.

Poorer areas in the world could have electricity: Much like many areas in the world never set up phone lines and skipped directly to the use of cell phones, this technology could have the ability to reach countries and communities that could not afford the initial infrastructure of power plants, lines, transfer stations and the maintenance of a conventional electric grid could perhaps afford these power blocks.  The addition of cheap electricity to these poor areas could lead to a higher standard of living and the possibility of a better life.

Carbon Emissions could Decrease: The use of alternative fuels in what could be called “micro-generation” of electricity could decrease carbon emissions for by 40 – 100% vs. conventional power generation depending on what kind of fuel input is used.

To me, this technology is very exciting.  Whether or not it works is a question that will take a few years to see, but the potential is enormous.  Already private investors have poured $400 million into the company (where anything over $100 million is deemed extreme in Silicon Valley).  I am generally a pessimist when it comes to technology like this, but I would like to think that we as a planet could come up with something better to power our houses then the current mix, which is pretty dirty.  While wind, solar and other  “clean” electrical generation methods work, they are not incredibly efficient – you need a ton of windmills or solar panels to power a small city – wouldn’t it be nice to have a “silver bullet” in the coming years, as peak oil creates significant increases in the cost of power?

Maybe I’m the only one, but does anyone else get excited about seeing projects like this?  Would you invest in this company given the chance? Are there any “green” companies you are currently invested in that have interesting technology that are showing potential?

3 thoughts on “An Energy Game Changer?”

  1. Dave,

    It’s not really cheap power depending on the source of the fuel. If oil hits $200/barrel you can bet natural gas will be up there as well. Also solar cells are still expensive to install so in either case the box does nothing to reduce your fuel costs.

    I think it could be best used for energy storage of variable renewables like wind/solar. Useful but not a game changer.


  2. Depending on how cheap alternative fuels can be made (which is always in question) it may become a viable alternative.

    I am quite skeptical, but if oil is $200 per barrel it would make the production of alternative fuels to run this thing a lot more viable. These alternative fuels may provide a more stable price point than traditional oil/gas.

    The problem I see with solar and wind power is the density. I read an article stating that in order to power a city of 300,000 people, 233 towers @ 5 megawatts are needed over a stretch of 200 miles.

    Same problem goes with solar, where a high-rise building would require a photovoltaic field 1,000 times as large.

    Although there is a lot of suitable land to put this infrastructure in Canada, other countries may have problems.


    If ( a big IF) these blocks could use renewable fuels that could be created much more cheaply than oil/gas will eventually cost, these might work. I find the claims a little un-realistic, but at the same time I am optimistic that at some point in the future we’d have something that works better than what we currently have.

Comments are closed.