Bloom Energy Finally Comes Clean in Packed Press Briefing

In a standing-room-only press conference today, held at eBay headquarters in San Jose, Bloom Energy publicly launched its Bloom Energy Server, following eight years of highly secret development, and almost $400m in investments, much of it from Silicon Valley’s top shelf VC, Kleiner Perkins.

The event kicked off with introductory remarks by Governor Schwarzenegger who described the state’s booming clean energy industry as the new California gold rush, and promised to create a new jobs bill focused on the clean energy sector.

“I love this guy,” the governor declared as he embraced Bloom Energy CEO KR Sridhar before turning over the podium to him. Mr. Sridhar covered much of the same ground as his recent 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl.

The briefing continued with a panel discussion, moderated by Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr, who admitted, “this is definitely the most powerful panel I’ve ever moderated.” No kidding. The panel featured a who’s who of corporate VIPs whose companies are currently testing the Bloom Energy Server at their facilities. Larry Page from Google, John Donahoe from eBay and Bill Simon from Walmart were among the executives endorsing Bloom’s new fuel cell technology.

General Colin Powell made the concluding remarks asserting that energy would be our biggest challenge in the 21st century especially for developing countries. Bloom Energy’s long-term vision is to bring clean energy to the billions of people now living off the grid.

Bloom Energy CEO KR Sridhar

The Bloom Energy Server, or Bloom Box as it’s being called, promises to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50 percent, run on a wide range of fuels, and provide electricity at a much cheaper rate per kW, compared to today’s utility grid power system. The test systems are providing power at 8 to 9 cents per kWh, according to Mr. Sridhar. (It should be noted that this price takes into account various California state subsidies and federal tax incentives.)

The company has been testing the Bloom Box at 20 customer sites (with price tags close to $800k) including locations like Google and eBay for the past 18 months, which have shown significant improvements in efficiency and emissions over existing fuel cell systems.

But the big questions still remain. Fuel cell systems have traditionally required precious metals, like platinum, and the use of corrosive chemicals that have made it difficult to build durable systems economically. Bloom Energy claims they have conquered many of these challenges by basing their technology on solid oxide ceramic fuel cells that can be made from common beach sand.

Most tech watchers agree that even if Bloom Energy has overcome the many physical challenges, it still remains to be seen if they can mass-produce these boxes at affordable prices, and it could take years to tell. Building prototypes versus large-scale commercial production are two different stories. If they can, no doubt the Bloom Box would be a true game changer with the potential to transform the world’s energy grid system.

Can Sridhar turn his vision into reality, or is this guy just bloomin’ crazy? Will the Bloom Box be the next big thing for Kleiner Perkins, who has already scored with successes like Amazon and Google, or will it go the way of the Segway scooter, one of the VC’s investments that never lived up to its hype?

All we can say is, “stay tuned.”

My professional experience over the past 20 years has taken me from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley in various marketing research, marketing, business development and sales roles. I now work as a freelance environmental writer and researcher while pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School.I'm especially interested in the use of technology to address the issues of education, equality, environment, health, and economic development.You can keep tabs on me at Triple Pundit and the NY Times Green Inc blog, email me at jameswitkin@gmail.com, or find me typing away at the various coffee shops around Palo Alto.