Silicon Valley hypegasm for miracle shoebox powerplants
'No emissions - too good to be true?' Well yes, actually
Analysis A Silicon Valley startup backed by the rainmaker who got Google off the ground is about to formally announce a miraculous, shoebox-sized device capable of powering a house - "anywhere, with no emissions" according to the BBC.
Of course that's just Beeb Twitter-journalism twaddle, and the firm in question - Bloom Energy - makes no claim of zero emissions or freedom from infrastructure. But the firm's executives and backers do think that many people in future may choose to install a small "Bloom Box" in their home and use it to generate electricity from such fuels as natural gas and ethanol.
The technology in the box is nothing more than a hydrocarbon fuel cell, and naturally it takes in oxygen from the air and emits CO2 just like an ordinary hydrocarbon-fuelled generator. But it is more efficient: and unlike most fuel cells, according to its makers, it is cheap to make.
That, in a nutshell, is it: a cheap gas-powered fuel cell. We've requested some actual tech specs from Bloom, but we're still waiting. The firm is playing the hype game particularly hard, with tailored, closely managed leaks to select media in recent days building up to a global announcement in a few hours' time.
However, the broad outlines of the Bloom Box are clear. The fuel cells are said to be made of cheap materials - "sand and ink" according to interviews given by Bloom CEO KR Sridhar - and to be undergoing trial deployments at various customer facilities in California. Wal-Mart, FedEx, eBay and Google have been named as customers.
Mostly the pilot Bloom plants - larger, fridge or car-sized units intended to power large buildings - run on ordinary fossil-fuel natural gas, but some users intend to use gas sourced from landfills or other more eco-feely sources.
Benefiting from lavish Californian eco-subsidies - much though there's nothing particularly eco-friendly about making electricity out of fossil fuel - and the known fact that a kilowatt-hour of gas is much cheaper than one of grid electricity, the Bloom units are reported to cut into a building's electricity bill quite substantially, as one would expect.
A prominent investor in Bloom is John Doerr of Netscape and Google fame, who thinks that homeowners may choose to install Bloom boxes: even that power companies may place larger ones in substations. Sridhar, a one-time NASA engineer, considers that small, affordable units could be a boon to customers in developing nations without access to grid electricity.
If the Bloom cells are as cheap and reliable as the firm suggests, the tech may indeed become very popular. But, contrary to the company's spin and the rapidly mounting hype, this would ultimately be a disaster in terms of carbon emissions and energy security for the Western world.
Properly carbon-busting fuels like garbage gas are never going to supply a big fraction of a developed nation's power - a few per cent is a likely maximum. As for ethanol, the only way this can be produced in a vaguely green way is as biofuel from food crops - and this equates to starvation for the world's poor plus accelerated deforestation with associated eco-evils.
Next page: Oh no - We're going to need even more gas
It seems to be becoming fashionable in certain quarters to slag off the transmission losses incurred by using Grid-based supply.
This is really quite silly for more reasons than I have time to document, but here are some starters.
The grid losses are small enough to not worry about in comparison with other losses. The US numbers have already been mentioned, Mackay says the UK numbers are similar: "For the UK as a whole, the total losses of energy in the transmission network are only 8% of the generated electricity, and almost all of that loss is in the local network. Only about 1.5% of the generated electricity is lost in the long-distance network."
The energy wasted by ignoring the laws of thermodynamics (by ignoring opportunities for combined heat and power) far exceeds the grid transmission losses (factor of three, maybe?). CHP is tried tested and proven technology which the idiocies of the market have ignored; these same market-driven insanities led to decades worth of natural gas being wasted on the post-privatisation electricity industry "dash for gas", and now the UK is reliant on the nice people in Russia and Libya for our natural gas (and the US is in Afghanistan to protect its natural gas imports).
The grid gives us resilience, and long distance transmission so we can use power in places far away from the power source. The long distance aspect is particularly valuable for electricity from pumped storage, from nuclear power away from population centres, UK electricity imported from France, and maybe one day European electricity provided by Desertec (solar power generation in North African deserts, delivered to Europe by a long distance grid, backed by companies whose names you may even have heard of, unlike the BloomBolox).
Without some worthwhile kind of grid, every electricity user needs their own local microgeneration, and they may need their own local electricity storage and their own methods of resilience against failure. Without the grid, everybody needs enough capacity to supply their own maximum demand. With the grid, the resources for generation and (limited) storage can be shared, and the total installed capacity can be much less than if resources weren't shared by the grid (because not everyone uses their maximum demand at the same time, and because "interruptible" contracts become an option, and so on).
The grid makes feed-in tariffs possible, though not everyone is convinced they make sense; if they don't, it's not the Grid's fault, if they do, without the Grid they wouldn't exist.
That'll have to do for now.
The long distance grid. It's an asset, not a waste.
"and the known fact that a kilowatt-hour of gas is much cheaper than one of grid electricity"
Does that still hold if everyone starts using it to produce electricity?
One of the more difficult aspects of power generation is smoothing out the peaks of demand. That's where local generation of electricity from gas could be handy because there are safe, cheap and easy ways to store gas and the distribution system is already built.
Microwave pyrolysis can turn waste wood or organic waste into syngas, bio-fuel and charcoal. If this process can be run intermittently it would be a good way to use the cheap waste power that wind turbines will be making much of the time they are turning and store the energy for use at times when it's needed.