Distributed computing works, why not distributed energy?

Distributed computing works, why not distributed energy?

Summary: Chances are, you have a furnace or some climate control system in your home. Why not your own power plant?


My mother texted me last night from Hawaii to ask me about Bloom Energy, the mysterious energy start-up that I've been vaguely wondering about since I saw an article about them in Business 2.0 magazine in 2007.

Seems she was watching a segment about the company on "60 Minutes," even though if you visit the company URL I've given you above, you'll see that Bloom Energy (backed by none other than venture capitalist John Doerr of Compaq, Netscape and Google fame) hasn't officially launched much messaging yet. So we've got to rely on the "60 Minutes" coverage.

In any case, Bloom has finally bloomed, if you will. The "Bloom Box" is essentially a giant fuel cell, that uses oxygen and some sort of fuel source (doesn't matter what kind) to create electricity. No combustion necessary, so this could use solar or wind or any of the other renewable sources you'd love to use. (Watch the video link I've provided, it is much more eloquent than I can be.) Supposedly, the cost for the box will be under $10,000.

This is a huge, paradigm-shifting idea, of course. First off, this addresses the classic problem associated with renewable energy: that it is a transient, unpredictable thing. In order for renewable energy to really have a chance as an alternative to fossil fuels, we need ways to store the electricity produced and ways to feed that power back into the grid if we're not using all of it.

I liken the thinking behind the Bloom Box to the idea of distributed computing: which enabled thousands of businesses to benefit from information technology, even though they couldn't afford or support a mainframe computer. If you buy into that idea, why shouldn't you buy into the idea of distributed energy that is both off the grid and on it, to boot.

If the Bloom Box concept works, and that is a big if obviously, this will be a ground-breaking idea.

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Topics: Networking, Cloud, Emerging Tech, Telcos

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  • The question is, at what scale is this appropriate or most efficient?

    Should we really have one in every house, or a
    bank of them for each neighborhood?

    In the event that a storm takes out your
    connection to the grid, then, there might be
    enough houses in the neighborhood producing
    wind or solar to keep at least all of the
    furnaces running.

    Of course this implies the need for a smart
    grid, where individual houses can be
    automatically notified to go into an low
    energy use mode. The street lights
    automatically disabled, etc.
    • Scale? Big enough for my home is all I need.

      But listen to what Google said. THat should answer your questions.
      • It might be a lot more practical to implement it on a larger scale that a

        single home, and average out the energy usage
        for a whole neighborhood.
  • No paradigm shift here.

    No paradigm shift here.

    It's a battery on steroids.

    Okay, it can use a "fuel" as well, being a fuel cell, but not really too different from a generator.

    Generators are usually only used for emergencies anyways - I don't think they contribute very much to CO2 levels.
    • Did you even watch the video or read anything?

  • RE: Distributed computing works, why not distributed energy?

    This is deffinily a paradigm change. The idea of supplying power unterupted and a
    reduction of the carbon footprint will help developed and third world countries
    increace power production and reduce power lines in eletricity distribution.
    Also the reduction in cost will help greatly.
  • RE: Distributed computing works, why not distributed energy?

    It provides an interesting alternative.
  • RE: Distributed computing works, why not distributed energy?

    It provides an interesting alternative. The questions that spring to mind are what sort of fuels will the Bloom Box accept, will the distribution of these fuels have to be centralized (that is, will the paradigm just shift where the energy is converted into a usable form - with the energy companies shifting from delivering the finished product to the delivering the raw form of energy (the fuel)), how polluting will the Bloom Boxes be, how efficient is the conversion of the energy via the fuel cells?

    When these type of questions are answered, it will provide people with better base to make a decision as to the viability of this technology on a larger scale.
  • Please explain the fuel comments

    The fuel cell uses oxygen from the air to combine with a chemical fuel source to provide electricity. That I understand. But what do have "solar" and "wind" have to do with fuel? And why would anyone want to bother with these if the fuel cell is as a efficient as is implied? Did I misread here? The Bloom link really is pretty sad, too, just as advertised.
    • A couple of interesting use cases

      If the Bloom box can be mass produced, they could be used by electric companies to produce electricity cleanly and possibly more cheaply, from fossil fuels or natural gas. Businesses and households who are fed natural gas, could use them in lieu of public electricity. Also they could be used as clean, portable generators. Maybe they could be used in vehicles to generate energy cleanly and more cheaply. Therefore a combination of the technology, natural gas, and maybe nuclear energy, might be able wean America from dependence on foreign oil, and give us a cleaner environment to boot. As for solar and wind energy, the technology appears to compete with, and is better than the two.
      P. Douglas
  • Oh, yes, one other thing

    What I really like about Heather's work is that she reports on fixes for our energy and (possible) climate messes. It's not just the gloom and doom "we must shut down civilization now or the world will end tomorrow" stuff that is so common. Go Heather!
  • These types of systems are the future.

    Along with conventional power generation system, it's not really just an issue of generating you're own power. Or converting Solar/wind for you're own use.

    It's more about base load, and peak loads.

    Power stations have to have the capacity to deliver peak power, but most of the time they are running almost idle during offpeak times.

    So during offpeak, you can 'charge' the system, for the peak times, this will greatly reduce the total peak capacity required by the power stations.

    And ofcourse, you can supplement you're personal power usage if Wind/solar is also available.

    Can we have some numbers please, whats the charge/discharge and generation efficiency of this system.

    There is no point in a system with only 50% efficiency, if you are buying power during offpeak times, but the bonus is that you can "sell back" energy during the peak times.

    Therefore greatly reducing the peak load capacity of the power stations. So you mabey do not need to build new power stations, that will be idling most of the time, and only really be required doing peak times.

    The power companies can help a great deal as well, by making offpeak power very cheap and peak power for expensive.

    That would create a market for homes and companies, to buy power during offpeak times, and sell it back during peak times. Load balancing and peak reduction will achieve much better system efficiencies, and lower the requirements for extra power generation statinos.
  • Fuel cells not new

    This sounds similar to what is used in remote parts of Japan where fuel cells are used to generate electricity. Fuel is trucked to the remote location.

    Fuel for the fuel cell is a hydrocarbon or alcohol, the output is water and heat.

    Ballard Power systems has been trying to make work for vehicles as well, but the problem is weight of fuel cells. This is not an issue for residential application.

    So can take your Natural gas as an input to the fuel cell, generate electricity and hot water. Without any combustion.

    • Yes, VERY expensive fuel cells with rare metals.

      Not practical as this one is.
  • No, lets be clear, its not an "if", the tests are in.

    Look at how many they have in service (on the downlow) that have been running a year or two and what the people using them are saying.
  • Absolutely!!! The grid is part of the problem.

    The power grid is one of the most in-effiecent things ever built. Estimates are that we lose up to 50% of all electrical power generated by sending it across trasmission lines where the power is converted to waste heat.

    I won't even bother to go into detail but the existing grid is falling apart and will require billions (100s of billion?) of dollars to update it. If we could do away with it completely, or even in part its a huge savings.
  • RE: Distributed computing works, why not distributed energy?

    I have confidence in John Doerr as an intelligent technology investor and doubt that he would go into a $100+ million dollar investment without surrounding him with smart people who have done their homework. I guess we?ll see over the next 12 months if it is for real. I?m looking forward to the launch on Wednesday. Here are some of my thoughts on the Bloom Box and what it will mean to our future: http://blog.mapawatt.com/2010/02/20/what-is-the-bloom-box-does-it-work-bloom-energy-could-change-the-world/
  • Heather Clancy strikes again!

    Fine reporting.
    This looks like it can be part of the mix that will deliver more sustainable energy.
    Yes sure it uses natural gas but methane is a whole lot easier to make from sustainable sources than replacements for coal or oil.

    I wonder what the green and black "paint" really is, and how much energy to make the ceramic tile?
  • RE: Distributed computing works, why not distributed energy?

    The world will have to wait to see exactly how Bloom Energy uses fuel cells to make electricity at this scale with no emissions, but powering over a 100 homes for less than $1 M is an incredible prospect. Great to know eBay, Google, and Fedex are pioneering the trials of this new technology: let the countdown begin!

    Researching how to make your company, product, or next project more Green? Go to www.greencollareconomy.com for sustainability white papers and the largest b2b green directory on the web.