Hope Springs: Can a Fuel Cell Save Us?

It was the morning of the third day of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. As his army maneuvered into place for what history would remember as Pickett’s Charge, General Robert E. Lee turned to his most trusted subordinate, General James Longstreet, and said, “This could be the day.” He could see victory for the besieged Confederacy, just a few hundred yards away, up the deceptively gentle rise of Seminary Ridge, just beyond the bristling blue line of Federal muskets, bayonets and cannon that waited there.

Today, in the 11th hour of the American Republic as it confronts the absolute limits of its supplies of energy from fossil fuels, with no preparations made for the inevitable and catastrophic encounter with those limits, I will say to you that today could be the day. Today, we just might set a new course toward a better future. For someone who has spent several years writing about the inevitability of an impending crash of the industrial age, this stirring of hope is quite unfamiliar. I had better explain.

Today is the day that Bloom Energy, of California’s Silicon Valley, formally announces the availability of Bloom Boxes — a new generation of fuel cells capable of producing cheap, low-emission electricity for homes and businesses. The hope for practical applications for fuel cells — which are essentially chemical batteries that produce electricity without burning anything — has been receding like the horizon for more than 30 years, always there, never any closer. The cost of production, the need for special fuels, exotic membranes (to separate the reactive chemicals) and rare metals, along with the inertia of the marketplace have together impeded any serious entry of fuel cells into the energy equation of the country.

Today could be the day. As previewed in a CBS “Sixty Minutes” segment on Sunday that I can only describe as electrifying — I know, I know —  Bloom’s unassuming CEO K.R. Sridhar  held up a cell the size of a coffee can capable, he said, of powering a house (a European house, he elaborated, an American house would require two. What does that say about us?). Bloom, he said, has solved the membrane problem with a ceramic plate made from ordinary sand, and uses commonly available alloy metals. Its chemicals are in the form of inks applied to opposite sides of the ceramic plates, which appear to be the size of the once-ubiquitous floppy disks. Moreover, the cell works with a wide range of fuels, such as natural gas, ethanol, methane — even water that has been “cracked” with solar power into its constituents, hydrogen and oxygen.

Talk is cheap, of course, and we have heard such announcements before, as in the frequent unveiling of cold fusion that never quite works. But Bloom Energy has been at work for eight years without doing any grandstanding — indeed, has tweaked curiosity because of its secrecy — and has raised and spent a respectable $400 million in capital. The fact that much of it, especially the initial seed money, came from the legendary venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins, will be mentioned by enthusiasts who recall he did the same thing for Google, and by skeptics who remember he did it for Segway, which he believed would transform the world.

Skeptics, among whom I count myself, were given serious pause by a couple of thunderbolts Mr. Sridhar delivered with his shy smile. Bloom Boxes have been tested (by the University of Tennessee), deployed, and are now working in commercial settings. Among them, a data center at the California headquarters of none other than Google, where an array of Bloom Boxes has, over a period of 18 months, produced reliably 3.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. Other current or imminent customers include Wal-Mart and E-Bay.

The testing and experience shows that Bloom Boxes not only work, but when using natural gas as fuel they are twice as efficient as traditional generators and emit about half the pollution. Plus they are cheaper to buy. The projected market price of a home-sized Bloom Box is about $3,000, according to Sridhar.

Which brings me to the thing that makes me feel the unaccustomed twinges of hope. Along with the technology, which appears to work, Sridhar and company are selling nothing less than a paradigm shift, of which I have long been a lonely advocate: forget the grid. Put your power source where you use the power — downsize, decentralize, and recognize, as I have written many times, that the only way to have a smart grid is to have no grid at all.

When Lee said to Longstreet, “This could be the day,” Longstreet knew it would not, because he knew what Lee could not yet accept, that modern warfare required smarter tactics than headlong charges into the teeth of guns. Had Lee followed Longstreet’s advice, had gone around the Federal army to threaten the US Capital and make the Federals attack him at a time and place of his choosing — well, that could have been the day.

What makes Bloom’s charge different, and entrancing to a practiced skeptic, is that it is executing an entirely new and appropriate strategy. Mark your calendar. This could be the day.

Click here to watch the discussion of Brace for Impact on CSPAN Book TV.

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