Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009

K.R. Sridhar

In a world where most alternative-energy companies are content to offer incremental advances, Silicon Valley's Bloom Energy is swinging for the fences. The Sunnyvale, Calif., start-up says it has developed a fuel-cell system that produces energy that's cleaner and more efficient than oil, gas or coal and more reliable than wind or solar power. "This technology is fundamentally going to change the world," gushes K.R. Sridhar, co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy. "It's going to have a disruptive impact on the way energy is produced."

Bloom recently cut its first major deal with online-auction giant eBay to install five of its fuel cells as part of eBay's plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 15% over four years. The Bloom cells at eBay's headquarters will generate up to 500 kW, enough electricity to power about 250 homes.

Bloom's technology is known as solid oxide regenerative fuel cells, which can run on almost any hydrocarbon fuel, like ethanol, biodiesel, methane or natural gas. Bloom's fuel cell consumes hydrocarbons but doesn't burn them. It generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction rather than by combustion and produces half the greenhouse-gas emissions of a conventional generator.

An efficient, affordable fuel cell could be just the thing to kick-start the distributed-energy industry, letting businesses, residents and even Third World villages produce their own power on site instead of relying on relatively inefficient centralized power. "Distributed power is like democracy, and centralized power is like communism," says Sridhar. And when the price of the refrigerator-size Bloom Boxes drops enough for any village to afford one, "power to the people" will have real meaning.

—Tom McNichol