At a time when so many of the clean tech startups supported by venture capital or government grants are on the ropes or failing, it's refreshing to hear of one that is doing better than ever. Bloom Energy, the Sunnyvale company that makes an advanced solid oxide fuel cell, will be selling twice the quantity of fuel cell energy it expected to AT&T, which plans to power data centers, administrative offices and customer service operations. The company had made news earlier this year when eBay announced it would install a 6 MW fuel cell bank made by Bloom at an expanding data center in Utah, making that the biggest single non-utility fuel cell installation ever.
An important element in Bloom's recent market successes, notes Earth2Tech's Katie Fehrenbacher, is its wilingness to sell "energy as a service," in an arrangement that permits companies to commit to fuel cell energy purchases over a ten year period without having to purchase the novel fuel cells themselves. That transfers risk associated with the new technology from the users of the energy to the provider—and so, taking that into account, the current good news for Bloom could translate to bad news down the road, if its cells do not perform as well as the company believes they will.
Right now, however, energy-devouring data centers are proving to be a boon for makers of stationary fuels cells, both new entrants like Bloom and traditional manufacturers like Fuel Cell Energy, improving prospects for an entire business that had been in the doldrums, when utility demand failed to be as strong as once hoped. Better overall prospects mean more opportunities all around. Thus, Fuel Cell Energy, based in Danbury, Conn., has just entered into a US $6 million cost-sharing agreement with the Department of Energy to develop a solid oxide fuel cell variant that will run on syngas obtained from coal.
Less than two years ago, when Bloom launched its first press campaign and was featured on CBS television's "60 Minutes," it encountered some skepticism in the general press. London's Financial Times noted that Bloom was benefiting from big California subsidies and that some of its development had been rather secretive. For now, anyway, Bloom's position would seem to be secure..