Bloom Energy CEO Interview Focuses on Future of Fuel Cell Energy

February 25, 2010

Bloom Energy CEO KR Sridhar gives a wonderful 101 style interview with Fresh Dialogues in which he explains the fundamentals of fuel cell energy and why it is a very smart bet on the future of energy across electricity power generation and vehicle electrification.

Fuel cell based Power Generation: Bridge & End Destination:
Despite the failure of fuel cells to live up to the  ‘Hype’ Phase of expected growth created during the DotCom Bubble, the electrochemical platform continues to evolve and remains a viable 21st century platform for cost effective and clean energy applications for portable power (micro- and transportation) and stationary electricity production.

A few points to note…

As is true with any new disruptive technology platform it will take time to develop and unfold.  It is important not to oversell the speed of change, yet avoid underselling the transformational power of fuel cells to change our world in the long-term!

And while Bloom is not the first company to bring stationary fuel cells to the market, it is the first to garner this much attention!  And awareness of what is possible with distributed power generation is very critical to the industry’s growth!

What makes Bloom Energy’s fuel cell important is that it can better utilize our dominant primary input of hydrocarbon fuels (mainly natural gas) for electricity generation, yet remain relevant to future ‘clean chemical fuels’ (e.g. hydrogen, hydrogen rich biofuels and synfuels).

Sridhar understands the dynamics of energy market transitions and the role that fuels play in electricity production.  The company has wisely decided to ‘build a bridge‘ and a ‘future destination‘ around fuel cells.

Central Power Plant Combustion vs Distributed Power Generation Electrochemical Conversion
Sridhar explains the advantages of direct chemical fuel to electricity generation.  Today we use large centralized power plants that convert hydrocarbon fuels (e.g. coal and natural gas) via multiple steps: combustion conversion of chemical energy to thermal-heat energy (water/steam) to mechanical energy (turbine) to electrical energy.  Lots of energy loss there!  And it requires massive capital investments (that are ‘peak demand’ oriented) and operational costs for central infrastructure maintenance and control.  Oh, and then there are the costs associated with transmission disruption along the wire grid via intentional attack or accidental overload.

Stationary fuel cells take that same chemical fuel (prefer hydrogen rich natural gas delivered via pipelines or trucks) and convert the chemical energy via electrochemical reactions directly into electrical energy.  One step that requires no moving parts.  And it is done at a lower capital cost, and with less operational overhead.  There is less risk because the fuel is distributed locally and can be converted via an energy appliance.

Bloom is opening the door to smaller distributed power generation. Neither this one company nor today’s versions of fuel cell platforms are going to transform the world any time soon!  But the door is open and the public is now getting an important lesson in the market dynamics of distributed energy!

Battery vs Fuel cell?
A battery is only a storage device.  Fuel cells are power generators!  One stores energy, the other converts fuels.  For many reasons (e.g. cost, weight, uptime, portability, non-grid production, profit structure) fuel cells are a more desirable energy platform.  Batteries are very important, but they do not offer the same transformational potential to global energy markets.

Batteries can be used to support the grid, whereas fuel cells make the grid irrelevant.  That is a very simple but disruptive concept that could alter how people around the world access fuels and electricity.

Solar & Wind vs Fuel cells?
This role of fuels is often overlooked in discussions around the future of energy.  Solar and wind are largely ‘grid oriented’ sources of electricity (exception being ‘rooftop’ solar that is ‘distributed power generation’).  Solar and wind compete against dominant ‘chemical fuel’ markets like coal and natural gas.  And despite all the upsides of renewable photons and wind patterns, it is hard to compete with the energy potential locked up inside chemical bonds that are extracted from the ground, or assembled above ground via chemical or bioenergy engineering.

Fuel cells play directly into the chemical fuels market, and offer a more cost effective and cleaner way to convert hydrocarbons into electricity beyond the centralized power plant model.

Of course, we must evolve all energy systems!  It is not ‘either or’ – and no single energy system can be viewed as a ‘holy grail’ to our complex set of energy challenges!

Again, I’ll step off my futures soapbox.. here is Sridhar’s interview:

[via Fresh Dialogues]

Related posts:

Additional interview with some more detailed explanation

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