Was the Hype Around Bloom Energy Two Years Ago Justified?

About two years ago Bloom Energy revealed its top secret “Bloom Box” fuel cell system and immediately created an incredible buzz. It was amazing to see how much hype buzzed around what the company described as “a new class of distributed power generator, producing clean, reliable, affordable electricity at the customer site.” For a while, it seemed that there was nothing more exciting than Bloom’s fuel cells that promised to change the world someday. So what happened with Bloom Energy since then?  Was the hype justified?

The good news is that unlike other cleantech super-hyped companies that captured the imagination in 2010 (i.e. Solyndra), Bloom is still with us and is actually doing quite well. The bad news is that it hasn’t changed the world yet and it’s not clear if it can change it. Looking at the journey Bloom has made in the last two years, we can point out three important milestones:

Focusing on data center security – Bloom had a very impressive list of customers in 2010 including eBay, Wal-Mart, FedEx, Staples, and Google, which was one of the reasons the company was receiving so much attention in the first place. Bloom continues to work with corporate America, but has also focused its efforts on the data center market. Bloom indicated the possible reason for this shift when it hired Peter Gross as VP earlier this month, calling him “a widely recognized authority in the design and implementation of advanced mission critical IT solutions, including data centers.” Gross is expected to lead Bloom to “fill a critical need in the data center industry.”

Interestingly, Bloom seems to focus less on its high level of efficiency and the fact that “the electricity produced by a Bloom Energy Server is 50 percent cleaner than that produced by the electrical grid,” than on its ability to make data centers more secure. “Because Bloom Energy Servers are located on-site with the customer, they are not vulnerable to disruptions to the power grid caused by human intervention or natural disaster,” the company explains.

In terms of customers, the company, as GigaOm reports, has already sold fuel cells to power data centers for NTT America, the U.S. division of Japanese telecom giant NTT, as well as AT&T. It might be even that Apple will be joining this list very soon. This focus on data centers makes a lot of sense since data centers seem to be in constant demand and having a clean source of energy becomes increasingly important as we’ve learned lately from Facebook. The cost is probably still an issue as Bloom Boxes still seem to be a more expensive alternative, which is probably why Bloom is focusing on the ‘security’ issue, showing how it provides an added value that can actually save data centers a lot of money.

Raising more money – Although Bloom was, almost from the beginning, a candidate for an IPO, it hasn’t happened yet. The rumors haven’t subsided, however, and Bloom is still considered one of the potential green companies that are expected to file papers for IPOs this year, together with SolarCity and Fisker. In the meantime, the company keeps raising money from investors. In January 2011, reports stated that the company had raised $100 million in equity financing, adding to the more than $400 million it had already received from VCs and other investors. In September that year it had another round of funding of $150 million. According to Fortune’s Term Sheet, the deal was marketed as a “pre-IPO” round at a $2.7 billion pre-money valuation.

Bloom doesn’t discuss its funding, so it’s not clear exactly how much money the company has raised so far, but it seems to be around $550-$650 million. The fact that the company is still able to raise significant amounts of money shows that the level of confidence in the company is still high. No less important is what Bloom actually does with all this money. It’s very likely that the money will be used to find solutions that will keep the cost of boxes down through improvements in the operation and maintenance of the boxes as well as in economies of scale. Eventually – and this is the critical part – Bloom must break even with regular electricity costs to provide a truly viable alternative.

Going to Delaware – Last October Bloom finally received the approval from Delaware regulators for its biggest project yet – building a manufacturing center to produce its fuel cells at the former Chrysler plant in Newark, DE. Bloom will also add 30 megawatts of power to the regional power grid by installing about 300 Bloom Boxes at two Delmarva Power substations.

To help make those initiatives possible, the deal also includes a tariff added to Delmarva customers’ bills, which is expected to be between $1.30 and $1.40 a month. The construction is expected to begin in 2012 (the ground-breaking ceremony was supposed to be on March 1, but it was delayed) and to be up and running in 2013.

The Newark plant will be Bloom’s first facility on the East Coast and has the potential to create up to 1,500 jobs as well as more than triple the current number of Bloom Boxes that are in operation. In other words, this a huge opportunity for Bloom to move on to the next level, achieving better economies of scale, improving its competitiveness and beginning to prove that it is truly a viable energy alternative and not just another promising start-up that can’t deliver the goods. In the meantime, the jury is still out there.

[Image credit: joshlowensohn, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as well as the sharing economy, sustainable business models and design thinking. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, resilience and the sharing economy, future of design thinking, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyles.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.