bloom-energy1editors-blog-entry3CBS’ 60 Minutes recently aired a piece on an innovative new energy device — set to be officially unveiled tomorrow (Wednesday, Feb. 24) — that its makers claim could revolutionize energy production and, they say, will make it both more democratic and greener.

bloom-box-smallCalled the Bloom Box, it’s a compact, concentrated fuel-cell device that supposedly is so efficient that just two tiny boxes would be able to serve as a power platform for an average single-family American home.

In fact, the Bloom Box looks rather like a magic box. Unfortunately, 60 Minutes frames its “exclusive” — and largely uncritical — story on the Bloom Box to make the device seem like (green) magic, too.

What troubles me about this 60 Minutes story (see video clip below) is the fact that the TV newsmagazine largely glosses over the question of the fuel source for the Bloom Box. There is no sustained look at exactly how much fuel each Bloom Box requires.

According to its developer, two Bloom Boxes could provide electricity for the average american home. But, of course, they cannot do so without being fired by some sort of fuel themselves.

How much coal would need to be burned to power the two Bloom Boxes needed to generate the 8,000 to 10,000 kWh of electricity the average american home uses per year? How much natural gas? How much oil? How big a solar system would be needed, etc.?

The report doesn’t provide answers to these questions. That’s a gaping hole.

The result: I think some people who don’t watch the report carefully could come away with the mistaken impression that the Bloom Box:

a) doesn’t need an outside fuel source (it does!);
b) that it, by itself, is inherently green (not true! it’s only as green as the source of energy which fuels it!).

At one point, the 60 Minutes piece juxtaposes a solar array on top of the headquarters of Ebay directly with the Bloom Boxes below, which are powered by biogas. (First it goes to Google’s Bloom Box installation, which is powered by natural gas, not biogas). This gives the clear impression that:

a) it’s solar vs. biogas-powered Bloom Boxes;
b) that biogas, and natural gas-powered Bloom Boxes are vastly superior to solar arrays as a form of energy production;

(The Ebay example is anomolous in terms of the Bloom Box’s gas power source; it’s clear that natural gas would be the choice for most Bloom Box users.)

A giant Bloom Box installation owned by utility A and powered by natural gas, or biogas, is much more appealing to utilities than a scenario in which individual homes with solar arrays power two Bloom Boxes on their own. That’s because the first scenario is the same top-down, power-in-the-hands-of-a-few energy production model we have now.

Yes, there is a scene in which 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl asks Bloom Box developer K. R. Sridhar about solar as a source of power for Bloom Boxes. He says, yes, solar is an option. However, this is overshadowed by the Ebay scene, and the Google scene, which, again, leave the impression that it’s much better to power Bloom Boxes with gas than with solar.

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Here’s betting the natural gas industry is eating this all up and that the utilities, while probably leary of the Bloom Box (after all, it could usurp their monopoly on power production), are likely to be at least semi-satisfied with this framing of the Bloom Box as being inherently better powered by natural gas (and biogas) than by distributive renewable energy forms such as solar.

A giant Bloom Box installation owned by utility A and powered by natural gas, or biogas, is much more appealing to utilities than a scenario in which individual homes with solar arrays power two Bloom Boxes on their own. That’s because the first scenario is the same top-down, power-in-the-hands-of-a-few energy production model we have now.

I’m all for solar-wind-geothermal, etc. powered Bloom Boxes in homes across America, and around the world, if, in the end, they:

  • allow those of us who want to, to power them 100-percent with renewable energy;

But, if what happens is that Bloom Boxes are primarily powered by non-renewables and — here’s the kicker — their greater efficiency in burning natural gas, etc. is used as an excuse to continue to delay/stunt the meaningful and widespread development of solar, wind, geothermal, etc., I’m definitely concerned about the Box’s potential impact on the American energy infrastructure and, just as importantly, on the future of solar.

If the 60 Minutes piece is any indication of how the Bloom Box will be covered by the mainstream media — which shapes many people’s views on many things, especially new technologies about which the public knows little to nothing about — then, I’m very worried the second scenario I’ve described above might well unfold.

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