Those much-hyped ‘Bloom Boxes’

2010-02-25

in Economics, Geek stuff, Science, The environment

Now that some figures are on their website, it is possible to comment a bit more meaningfully on Bloom Energy (beyond noting that they can attract a lot of heavyweights to their press events).

They seem to have deployed 3 megawatts of fuel cells in seven installations. That’s twice as much power as is provided by Grouse Mountain’s solitary wind turbine. Of these, two installations (with an output of 900 kW) are running on methane from renewable sources. According to Wikipedia, the fuel cells cost $7,000 to $8,000 per kilowatt. That is extremely high. An open cycle gas turbine power plant costs about $398 per kilowatt. Wind turbines cost something like $1,000 per kilowatt. Nuclear is probably over $2,000 and even solar photovoltaic is cheaper than $5,000. From an economic perspective, natural gas also isn’t the most appealing fuel for electricity production. It has significantly higher price volatility than coal.

Without more statistics, it is impossible to know how the efficiency of these fuel cells compares to conventional natural gas power plants, either before or after transmission losses are factored in. Bloom’s literature says that, when they are using conventional natural gas, emissions from their fuel cells are 60% lower than those from a coal power plant. Frankly, that isn’t terribly impressive. Coal plants generate massive amounts of CO2, relative to their power output. It also isn’t clear whether methane from renewable sources would be more efficiently used in these distributed fuel cells than in larger facilities based around turbines and combustion.

Many environmentalists assume that distributed power is the future, but there are definitely advantages to large centralized facilities. They can take advantage of economies of scale and concentrated expertise. They may also find it easier to maintain the temperature differential that establishes carnot efficiency.

It will be interesting to see how Bloom’s products stack up, when more comparative data is available.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 25, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Note, my source on per-kilowatt capital costs for different kinds of power plants isn’t the most authoritative, but other sources suggest they are ballpark-correct.

If someone can link to a better source, it would be appreciated.

R.K. February 25, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Wikipedia also says that these prototypes were “hand-made.” If they scale up production to an industrial level, they may get much cheaper.

Tristan February 26, 2010 at 12:23 am

The comparison to coal plants is what stinks here. Gas turbines and high-energy carbon fuels like methane, compared to low-energy coal and steam turbines – I’d be surprised if these fuel cells are more efficient.

Anyone who sells fuel cells as a power source, or a power plant – rather than as an improved sort of battery for storing energy produced in other ways, is selling snake oil.

Tristan February 26, 2010 at 10:22 am

What might a gas turbine plant with CCS cost?

Milan February 26, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Nobody really knows, as none exist yet.

It would depend on many different factors. Integrated gasification combined cycle plants are more efficient, but also more expensive. CCS could rely on filtering CO2 from flue gases after combustion, or on producing pure oxygen to burn the methane in (generating a pure CO2 stream). CO2 could be transported by pipeline or in vehicles (the former far more likely), across varying distances. And it could be injected into different sorts of geological features, ranging from aquifers to salt domes to the floor of the deep ocean.

There are, however, various estimates out there. There is also data on injecting unwanted CO2 mixed in with natural gas in ‘acid gas’ wells.

Milan February 26, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Some CCS reports are linked below: CCS plan subverted by local opposition.

Tristan February 27, 2010 at 11:45 am

Are there no CCS plans which don’t simply advocate pumping gas the gas underground? Couldn’t it be stored? Presumably if it were stored, in the future it could be turned back into C and O2 when more sustainable energy capacity comes online.

Milan February 27, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Are there no CCS plans which don’t simply advocate pumping gas the gas underground?

Aside from the plan to just dump it in lakes on the sea floor, all CCS plans are based around injecting it into underground formations.

Presumably if it were stored, in the future it could be turned back into C and O2 when more sustainable energy capacity comes online.

Why would anyone want to do this?

Tristan February 27, 2010 at 6:25 pm

“Why would anyone want to do this?”

Because we could bury solid Carbon with a high degree of safety, whereas all plans to inject CO2 underground sound extremely risky. The best you can say is that the risk is localized and extended over the long term.

Milan February 27, 2010 at 6:31 pm

CO2 injected into certain kinds of formations will react with rocks over time.

It is also worth noting that any system designed to allow for the possible re-extraction of the CO2 seems almost certain to be more susceptible to leaking.

Milan February 27, 2010 at 6:32 pm
Tristan February 27, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Certainly burying C is safer than burying Co2.

In fact, I could interpet “burycoal” as a call to bury C rather than CO2.

Milan February 27, 2010 at 6:50 pm

For CCS to matter, the volumes under consideration are phenomenally gigantic. One stabilization wedge worth of CCS requires injecting a volume of liquid CO2 equivalent to the total volume of oil being taken from the ground every year. I have never heard of any process for converting CO2 into a solid form of carbon on such a mass scale, and we need many wedges to stabilize anywhere near 350ppm.

Milan February 27, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Also, if we had some way to turn billions of tonnes of CO2 into solid carbon (like graphite), there would be no need to bury the stuff.

It is also worth noting that such a process might take more energy than the original fuels running the CCS plant contain. Graphite, after all, has enough energy in its chemical bonds to be flammable. All that binding energy would need to come from somewhere.

Milan February 27, 2010 at 6:53 pm

The idea of CCS with solid carbon may well be like the idea of getting rid of nuclear waste by lobbing it into the sun: appealing on the surface, but impossible or deeply inadvisable for practical reasons.

. February 27, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Synthetic graphite can be produced from coke and pitch. It tends to be of higher purity though not as crystalline as natural graphite. There are essentially two types of synthetic graphite. The first is electrographite, which is pure carbon produced from calcined petroleum coke and coal tar pitch in an electric furnace. The second type of synthetic graphite is produced by heating calcined petroleum pitch to 2800°C. On the whole synthetic graphite tends to be of a lower density, higher porosity and higher electrical resistance. Its increased porosity makes it unsuitable for refractory applications

Synthetic Graphite consists mainly of graphitic carbon that has been obtained by graphitisation, heat treatment of non-graphitic carbon, or by chemical vapour deposition from hydrocarbons at temperatures above 2100K.

Tristan February 27, 2010 at 8:43 pm

“I have never heard of any process for converting CO2 into a solid form of carbon on such a mass scale, and we need many wedges to stabilize anywhere near 350ppm.”

The point is, if CO2 is stored in tanks rather than under surface, the problem of disposing of it can be put off into the future.

If a wedge of carbon reduction requires so much CCS underground, maybe that wedge isn’t worth it.

Underground CCS stinks of screwing the future in just a different way.

Milan February 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm

The post linked above describes how there is already a lot of CO2 underground in the kind of formations under consideration. That suggests, but certainly doesn’t prove, that the approach could be viable.

As I have argued repeatedly before, we cannot rule out any options that might really help, at this stage.

. March 3, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Monday, March 01, 2010
A Day Late on the Bloom Box

I wasn’t going to write anything on the Bloom Box, but people keep writing to ask what I think. My initial reactions were “What a lot of hype” and “I have seen this all before.” I also wondered why it is that people keep falling for these kinds of stories.

But fuel cells aren’t my specialty, and as such I won’t weigh in on the relative technical merits of this design over another. I know that fuel cells have been very expensive for many years, and the initial projections I have seen over the Bloom Box are that they will be very expensive.

In fact, if you go back into Google’s news archives on Plug Power, you can see a histogram that shows the news stories on Plug Power spiking in 2000, remaining fairly strong until about 2005, and then falling to lower levels in the past few years.

The buzzwords used to describe Plug Power were the same as those used to describe the Bloom Box. The technology was called revolutionary, disruptive, and a real game-changer. There was a prediction made that most people would have Plug Power’s fuel cells in their homes by 2010 and we would all be locally producing and using our electricity in a refrigerator-sized box.

What happened? Plug Power’s stock soared to $2 billion on the hype at a time when investors would bid up companies that had no earnings but incredibly high growth projections. It just so happens that hype can lead to those growth projections (a hard lesson for me that permanently changed my investing style), and what happened was that reality eventually caught up with the hype.

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