Bloom Energy is Bullish on its New Hydrogen-Powered Fuel Cell

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Microgrids often rely on solar-plus-batteries, combined heat and power, or back-up generators that run on diesel fuel or natural gas. But Bloom Energy says that it has just finished the engineering and testing for a “server” that uses renewable hydrogen produced by excess renewables that keeps electricity flowing.

“On a sunny day, when the microgrid’s assets or nearby wind and solar deployments have excess capacity, the operators can feed that excess to split water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas, rather than export it to the utility,” says Arne Ballantine, vice president of Systems Engineering for Bloom, in an interview. “The hydrogen can be stored before it is run into a Bloom Energy server, or fuel cell, all to run a microgrid when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

fuel cells

Credit: Bloom Energy

“It’s all been tested,” he continues. “It is a vital part of the future. We think it is much cleaner and more reliable than if you had to fall back on diesel generators. We have finished the testing and it is ready now.”

Hydrogen is abundant, renewable and non-polluting. It is found mostly in water. But for it to be used efficiently by fuel cells, an isolated hydrogen source is helpful. When the hydrogen is separated, it takes energy. And then that hydrogen must be stored, which can either be in pipelines or tanks on site near the microgrids. Once it is in storage, the hydrogen can sit without suffering any losses.

The Bloom Energy servers today run mostly on natural gas or biogas as a fuel. But those servers can be upgraded to use renewable hydrogen, meaning wind and solar power would be used to split apart the hydrogen and oxygen. There would then be no fossil fuel impact.

What does this hydrogen technology mean for solar-plus-storage? There will certainly be a number of battery solutions, Ballantine says, but hydrogen-powered fuel cells will become more prevalent and a notable part of the mix.

“If we make hydrogen from water, we will have to spend energy to get that done,” Balantine adds. “We will have to spend more energy to compress and store it. But once it is done, it will sit there happily until it is time to use it. Once we go to electricity, however, we lose some efficiency,” meaning not all of the energy input is converted to electricity.

“When you charge and discharge a battery,” he continues, “There is also a round trip efficiency loss. From the technical side, it will be comparable economics.”

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  1. Yes, I would like your updates on Fuel Cell technology!

  2. While renewable hydrogen is a promising fuel source for fuel cells, there are many of hurdles that need to be cleared before it is a viable reality. Two major ones stand out to me:

    First is the low efficiency of hydrogen production. While you may be using renewable energy to produce it, most means of electrolyzing water have efficiencies in the 70-80% range. Fuel cells themselves are limited in electrical efficiency to ~60% (assuming the waste heat isn’t used for CHP, in line with Bloom’s current work). This gives a round trip efficiency of 40-50%. Compare this to the round trip efficiency of batteries (80-90%) or pumped hydro (75-85%) and you see why it is hard to make an economic case.

    Second is the transport of said hydrogen fuel. While onsite storage may be viable, transport through the nation’s natural gas pipelines, as the diagram suggests, is not. All research I’ve seen into the topic show that concentrations of hydrogen exceeding 10-15% (mixed with natural gas) cannot be run through the current piping infrastructure without introducing leak and explosion hazards. (Not just at the joints and in cracked pipes in our already lossy natural gas pipeline, but hydrogen itself can transport through the most common pipeline material, PVC).

    While fuel cells are nice, without vast changes and improvements, I can’t seem them taking more than an ancillary role in any future renewable energy deployment scenario.

  3. George Kafantaris says:

    The hydrogen economy is more imminent than you think. A likely scenario could go like this: China quickly realizes that it needs a hydrogen infrastructure to get hydrogen off the ground. It thus spends upward to $50b to connect all major Chinese cities. When that happens, other countries will follow suit, including the U.S., Canada, Germany, U.K., France, Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Russia, etc. And they will do so not only to avoid falling behind in an emerging technology but also as a matter of weapon superiority and national security.
    The question for these countries then is whether to wait for China and play catch-up, or whether to take the lead themselves. Doing so for the United States is not an insurmountable task. According to an old GM study, the price tag for connecting all major US cities with hydrogen was $15b. Even if the price is now doubled, or even tripled, it is worth it to stay ahead of the curve.
    And remember, by 2030 battery cars like Tesla could be overtaken by hydrogen cars because while battery prices will remain high, fuel cell prices will dramatically come down. “For the customers, it will be difficult to accept such a [battery] car in the market — you pay a higher price, you get less of a car, so it will be a tough sell,” says Germany’s Felix Gress.

  4. Vasuki Nag says:

    Bloom energy is misleading hogwash. All hydrogen fuel is extracted from fossil fuels today. So, Bloom energy is as dirty, as the fossil fuels powering our power plants. Don’t waste your money on this technology, until hydrogen can be produced from water at affordable cost.

  5. Heliogen’s solar breakthrough can generate hydrogen too.

    This would help ?:

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