Silicon Valley hypegasm for miracle shoebox powerplants
'No emissions - too good to be true?' Well yes, actually
Oh no - We're going to need even more gas
So we're talking about fossil natural gas here for most users. Compared to coal, natural gas is a clean fuel, especially if used with high efficiency. In America, which doesn't yet use it much - especially in a domestic context - it also appears to be in secure supply, especially compared to importing oil from the volatile Middle East, Nigeria or Venezuela.
But America might take warning from old Blighty, and indeed from Western Europe in general, where gas is hugely more popular. Blessed/cursed with a widespread gas grid, legacy of the days when Britain was the world's primary industrial power and when coal gas was used even for lighting, we Brits are nowadays hopelessly addicted to natural gas.
We use it not just to heat our homes, cook our food, provide the hot water which is such a lynchpin of the luxurious Western lifestyle (clean clothes, clean bedding, low rates of infection, personal hygiene) - we even generate large proportions of our grid electricity with it. The power stations are generally high-efficiency combined cycle gas turbines - we're still waiting to hear from Bloom how their kit compares to CCGTs.
Blighty's gas formerly came from our own North Sea fields, but those are playing out and more and more is set to be piped in (across similarly gas-hungry Europe) from Russia, putting us more and more under the thumb of an increasingly bumptious and unfriendly Kremlin.
Distributed gas fuel-cell microgenerators along the lines foreseen by Bloom, probably used as part of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units, are an idea that has already been considered for the UK. The end result, as concluded in a recent study, would be to worsen the national addiction to gas and reduce the scope for technologies which are actually low- to zero- carbon like wind or nuclear.
In the end, gas fuel cells for buildings simply replaces one grid - the electric one - with another, the gas grid. It might, lacking the almost universal pipe network of the UK, be a grid made up of tanker or gas-cylinder trucks, but it is infrastructure all the same.
Fuel cells are doubtless cleaner than coal and might match or even exceed CCGT power stations and electric transmission in efficiency of gas use and thus in terms of carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour - but probably not by a lot, not enough to seriously affect national emissions. And if Bloom cells do become widespread, they will drive up gas demand even higher. People might even start making gas out of coal again, as the Victorians did.
Ultimately, if you view it as a way of moving off coal electricity and onto gas the way Americans do, the Bloom Box kit could be seen as green - though a fairly pale green at best. For countries which already use too much gas, like the UK, it's a bad idea both on green and energy-security grounds and should surely not be encouraged.
In fact, those with the best interests of Western democracy and/or the environment at heart might actually hope that the Bloom Box isn't as efficient and cheap as its makers suggest. If it really is within easy reach of every householder, if it really does open a can of whup-ass on the electric grid in terms of price, it will naturally take the world by storm without any hefty California-style subsidies. The recent "dash to gas" seen in Blighty will spread across the world, funnelling cash and clout to hardliners in Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere to begin with.
Then, when the gas has all been turned into atmospheric carbon, we'll all have to spend another fortune going onto wind or nuclear - or, just maybe, back onto coal.
Fortunately, given the history of Silicon Valley hypegasm product launches, it seems likely that the Bloom Box isn't quite all that it's cracked up to be. ®
Sponsored: IBM FlashSystem V9000 product guide