Archives For energy conservation

Silicon Valley startup Bloom Energy came out of “stealth mode” this morning, finally going public with the solid oxide fuel cells that CEO K.R. Sridhar hopes will change the world.  The idea is incredible – grapefruit-sized modular boxes that produce clean, affordable electricity.  One will power a European home, two power an American home, and a box the size of a small refrigerator will power a small office building.  It sounds too good to be true, and it may be.

Fuel cell technology has been around for about a century, and it’s used almost exclusively on NASA missions.  It’s complicated stuff, but the end result is that you put fuel and oxygen in, and electricity comes out; no combustion is required (you can see a video explaining the process here).  The problem with using en masse is its prohibitive cost, and the difficulties associated with mass production.  Bloom Energy is attempting to drive this cost down by using more common materials, simpler processes, and research into technology refinements.

In an interview with Fresh Dialogue, Sidhar describes the problem with conventional electricity generation:

“A fuel is simply a substance that has in it chemical energy. You burn that in air, that’s combustion, and when you burn that you see the flame, that’s creates heat. So you’ve converted chemical energy to heat energy.  That raises steam, the steam then goes into a big turbine that spins, so you’ve converted the heat energy to mechanical energy. Now, around that is a copper coil,  called an alternator, converts the mechanical energy to electrical energy. So the way you convert this fuel to electrons on the other end, which is what you need, is going from chemical energy to thermal energy to mechanical energy to electrical energy.”

The problem with this approach is that at every step of the process, every transition from one form of energy to another, you lose a portion of your total energy.  Fuel cells bypass the intermediate steps in this process, turning the chemical energy in the fuel directly into electrical energy.

This isn’t a perfect process.  One of the byproducts of the chemical reaction is CO2, but the boxes Bloom Energy is turning out produce 60% less per megawatt hour than coal plants do.  This isn’t as impressive as some zero emissions alternative energy like wind and solar, but solid oxide fuel cells have one huge advantage.  While wind and solar work great when they’re working, and the price is falling rapidly, they only produce energy in cycles.  Solar panels won’t get you energy at night.  Fuel cells on the other hand, can churn out energy 24/7/365, making them far more useful than these other technologies, even if they aren’t quite as clean.

But best part of Bloom Energy is their focus on flexibility and adaptability – and here I have to admit that I’ve been leaving something out.  The Bloom boxes (or “servers” as Sridhar prefers to call them) can run on fossil fuels, but they can also run on renewable biofuel, producing zero emissions.  The solid oxide fuel cells are meant to facilitate the transition to alternative, clean energy, but they make it a gradual (read: more politically and socially feasible) transition by incorporating more efficient use of conventional fuel.  The future is zero emissions energy generation, but getting there will be a more gradual process.  According to Sridhar, Bloom Energy is “building the bridge as well as the future destination.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the servers also produce hydrogen as a by product.  Sridhar and the Bloom team are poised to capitalize on this aspect of their technology as well: “Transportation can potentially go in two directions in the future: one is a hydrogen infrastructure for the car, the other one is an electrical infrastructure.  Our device can either produce the electricity that will charge the car or provide you hydrogen if the transportation becomes hydrogen based. So we’ve sort of become the gas station for the transportation industry.”

So Bloom Energy stands ready to revolutionize the energy industry and facilitate the revolution of the transportation industry.  The multi-million dollar question then, is can they do it?  Can they reduce the cost enough to make solid oxide fuel cells a viable energy alternative, and can they manage to mass produce them in an effective way?  While there are certainly no guarantees, they certainly have a lot of support.

Bloom Energy has raised over $400 million dollars in investor money, and has the backing of some of the biggest companies in the world.  Coca-Cola, Staples, Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, eBay, Cox, and FedEx are all behind the project, and their CEOs took the stage at Bloom Energy’s press conference this morning to emphasize their support.  Other notable supporters include Arnold Swartzenegger, who spoke this morning, several US Senators, billionaire and current mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, and former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who joined the Bloom Energy board in 2009 and was the keynote speaker at the conference this morning.

And several of these companies are already testing Bloom Energy servers.  eBay had five of them installed on their campus nine months ago.  They cost a whopping $800,000 dollars, but State and Federal rebates cut the cost in half.  According to John Donaho, the CEO of eBay, in the short time they’ve been operational, the Bloom servers have saved the company over $100,000 dollars, and they expect they will pay for themselves in the next three years.

Initial successes like this are promising, but the technology is still being tested, and isn’t currently capable of mass production.  There are also many skeptics, and many questions that still remained unanswered.  Will utility companies try to crush Bloom Energy, or will they get on board and try to incorporate Bloom’s technology into their own business model?  Can Sridhar really drive the price of his units down to $3000 as he claims?  Unfortunately, we won’t know for quite a while.  Bloom has gone public, but they’re still predicting 10 years before their boxes are available to consumers at reasonable prices.

I’m tremendously excited about this project and this company though, because they way I see it, they can’t fail.  Listening to Sridhar speak, and reading transcripts of the interviews he’s given, you can’t help but recognize that he isn’t in it for the money – he really wants to change the world.  It’s possible the company fails, but with the kind of drive they have and the political and commercial endorsements they’ve required, they won’t fail quietly.  At the very least, Bloom Energy will spur a green technology boom, both through their own research and the efforts of would be competitors.

One of the biggest problems the green technology movement has faced over the years is kickback from the conventional technology industries they’re trying to supplant.  Remember how GM killed the electric car?  But Bloom Energy has an advantage that most of these other companies haven’t had: the support of commercial giants.  You’d be hard pressed to find a group of heavier-hitters than the support group Bloom has rallied.  Hopefully this will give their technology a leg up in the political sphere, and shield them from the economic attacks of any hostile companies.

This may not be the technology of the future, but it is a refreshing change in approach.  Great ideas almost always come from competition, and that’s exactly what we need in the race for clean energy – not just intra-technology competition, but competition between clean technologies.  Introducing fuel cells as a potentially viable alternative to coal and nuclear power broadens the market and drives innovation both within the fuel cell industry and competing industries.

I can’t wait to see what Bloom Energy manages to achieve, but win or lose, they’ve already made enormous progress.

More Information:
60 Minutes interview with Sridhar, Engaget’s live updates on the press conference, Wired’s article on Bloom vs. Solar, Bloom Energy’s data sheet on the ES-5000 Energy Server.

A couple of weeks ago in Modern Architecture and Sustainability, we were assigned a chapter from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, titled “Panopticism.”  The chapter opens by describing the measures taken in the 17th century to contain the plague.  People were quarantined in their homes, delivered food, and watched through regular inspections in which the whole family was required present itself at a window so the neighborhood inspectors could make sure no one inside had succumbed to the disease.  This marked the development of a system of societal discipline and authoritarian order through measurement and supervision than has strongly influenced the structure of our society today.

Foucault then presents an icon of this ideological transition: the Panopticon.  In 1785, the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham proposed a new type of prison building whose structure fundamentally altered established notions of power and security in architecture.  The design “incorporates a tower central to a circular building that is divided into cells, each cell extending the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen. Toward this end, Bentham envisioned not only venetian blinds on the tower observation ports but also maze-like connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer” (Ben and Marthalee Barton).

A prison inspired by Bentham's Panopticon.

This unique and unprecedented architecture creates a brilliant yet diabolical power dynamic based on observational capacity.  The prisoner in a cell is completely cut off from other prisoners around him, yet unable to hide from the gaze of the supervisor in the central tower.  But Bentham’s master stroke is in making observation one-way.  The prisoner can never know if he is being watched, so must assume that he is always being watched.

This design, but more importantly this idea, increases the economy and efficacy of power, eventually leading to contemporary disciplinary measures.  The Panopticon becomes the icon of this transition from closed-in, forcible discipline to the more diffuse, informational discipline of the post-Enlightenment – what Foucault calls “panopticism.”  While previously the preferred form of discipline was death or dismemberment, in a panoptic society the ideal punishment is indefinite examination.  This notion has infiltrated other aspects of modern society including hospitals, schools, and factories.

A college campus at night.

Now, this is all very interesting stuff, but after reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit dramatic and Orwellian and didn’t reflect contemporary society.  But walking home from the library one night, I was struck by how illuminated the campus was.  Between streetlights, building lights, and windows, I was hardly ever walking in what I would call “dim” light, and certainly never in the dark.  As an environmentalist, my first thought was that this obviously constituted a tremendously wasteful practice, and that we would be better off…what?  Turning off the lights and letting people walk home in the dark?  Or even just through dark patches?

That’s when it occurred to me that light has become nearly synonymous with safety in our society.  Even in a place like Claremont, it seems unreasonable to expect people to walk around in the dark.  In the dark, it’s much easier to commit crimes because the target can’t see it coming, and there are no witnesses.  By illuminating areas where people walk, we create a panoptic environment in which people could be watching, whether or not they are, and this is enough to deter the vast majority of crime.

Even when it comes to home security we have shifted our views.  While strong doors and locks certainly play their role, the front line of defense is exterior lighting.  By lighting the exterior of our homes and businesses at night, we force would be criminals to recognize that it’s at least possible that they are being observed.  The home becomes the central observation tower of Bentham’s structure, wherein the occupants maintain a position of observational power over those outside (though this position becomes interestingly reversed if the blinds are not drawn).

The United States at night, seen from space.

But, as I mentioned earlier, this pervasive panopticism carries profound consequences in a society concerned with the environmental impacts of energy usage.  Using less energy by turning off lights becomes an entirely different issue when light is considered a safety necessity.  People are willing to make small changes for the environment, but even some devout environmentalists will shy away from the dangers (whether real or perceived) of darkness.

Turning off lights is all well and good, but light has too much significance in our society for its conservation to constitute any real environmental impact.  We aren’t capable of making a meaningful shift away from our current panoptic notions of security, so the better path for environmentalism to take is investment in burgeoning alternative energy that will let people continue current energy use practices while mitigating the environmental consequences.