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Bloom Energy Promises Power Plant in a Box

What could possibly bring California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Google co-founder Larry Page together in one room? A power plant the size no bigger than a garbage can that can power an entire house for a year. That’s exactly what Silicon Valley’s Bloom Energy trotted out on Wednesday at its much-anticipated press conference for its new fuel cell technologies.

Although Bloom teased the so-called “Bloom Box” earlier this week in an appearance on 60 Minutes, the company made the firm announcement at eBay’s campus on Wednesday. The venue was chosen because eBay has already begun using a commercial-grade version of Bloom’s fuel-cell generators. According to eBay’s own number crunching, they have already shaved $100,000 off the company’s power bills – though it will take up to 13 years of running before eBay recoups the $700,000 to $800,000 initial cost.

Unlike the hydrogen fuel cells auto companies hope to eventually power cars with, Bloom’s fuel cells use solid-oxide technology, which requires them to operate at extremely high temperatures, but has the benefit of handling a number of viable fuels: natural gas, methane, ethanol, and hydrogen, just to name a few. Although they still produce carbon dioxide emissions, Bloom claims they’re twice as efficient as the coal power plants providing the majority of electricity to American homes today.

Like many green technologies now making the rounds, solid-oxide fuel cells have existed for decades. Bloom’s innovation – if it can deliver on its claims – will be making them affordable. While current cells use expensive raw materials like platinum as a catalyst, Sridhar claims Bloom’s cells will essentially use sand, and a special blend of “ink” as an anode.

The goal, according to Bloom CEO K.R. Sridhar, is a $3,000 box for homes that will last 10 years and recoup its cost in 3 to 5 years. Bloom’s commercial boxes already generate electricity at about 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour running on natural gas, which undercuts utility rates in many parts of the United States. Federal and state subsidies may help soak up some expense as well: The federal government offers a whopping 30 percent subsidy for fuel cell projects, and Californians can tack on another 20 percent from their state government.

Bloom refers to its boxes as “energy servers” because, like Web servers, they will be designed to be totally scalable, allowing owners to add additional cells as their power needs expand. An ambitious plan, but Sridhar has already secured the backing of Silicon Valley’s largest green tech investor, and snagged Google, eBay, Wal-mart, Coca-Cola, and many more major American companies as customers.

As for when you’ll be able to head down to a Bloom dealership and throw a power plant in your trunk, Sridhar didn’t throw out any hard details at Wednesday’s official announcement, but cited “5 to 10 years” during his original 60 Minutes interview on Sunday.

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