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Bloom Box generates buzz, skepticism with 60 Minutes spot

The Bloom Box 60 Minutes segment has sparked interest, and the device has potential to be a game-changer. But the challenge of developing an affordable, reliable fuel cell has been around for a century, experts say.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / February 22, 2010

60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl walks with eBay CEO John Donahoe near some of the company's Bloom Box fuel cells in this screengrab from the program. Experts say Bloom Energy's goal of powering many US households in 10 years is a lofty one.

60 Minutes screengrab/CBS

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San Francisco

K.R. Sridhar, founder of the Silicon Valley clean tech start-up Bloom Energy, says he’d like to see his company’s Bloom Box fuel cell technology lighting up most American households within the next 10 years.

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That’s a lofty promise from the Sunnyvale, Calif., company that doesn’t officially launch until Wednesday. And many experts are quite skeptical about whether Mr. Sridhar, who has already raised about $400 million to produce his boxes, can bring expensive fuel cell technology to the masses.

“The buzz is sort of a mix of excitement and befuddlement,” says Joel Makower, executive editor of Greener World Media. “It has to do with the fact that this is by no means the first fuel cell company to promote clean energy.”

To succeed where others have failed, he says, Bloom Energy will have to show its fuel cell technology is cheap enough for consumers while being adaptable enough for big business.

As the Next Big Future blog pointed out, the Connecticut company Fuel Cell Energy has been installing fuel cell units since the 1990s, but lost $71 million last year.

“People have been trying to develop fuel cell technology for the last 100 years,” says Ron Pernick, cofounder and managing director of Clean Edge, a research firm focused on clean technology. “The biggest obstacle is price, price, and price.”

In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night, Sridhar provided the first inside look at his Bloom Box, which contains stacks of fuel cells that generate electricity. He expects his boxes will cost about $3,000 for consumers. Currently, several large technology companies, such as Google and eBay, have been using Bloom Boxes in limited capacity.

If Bloom can achieve the $3,000 home unit, according to Fuel Cell Today, that’s a “big improvement from the $800,000 box of today.” What’s more, according to the trade industry website, other bigger energy companies may be more capable of producing less-expensive fuel cell units and beat Bloom Energy to the market.

But Bloom Energy isn't aiming for the home market just yet. It would appear to be going after large companies, many who can take advantage of state and federal clean-energy incentives to offset the high price of the boxes, and then branching out to the residential market.

Indeed, as experts point out, there are still many questions that remain about the Bloom Box, which until Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview had been shrouded in secrecy. The mystique surrounding the company has certainly added to the excitement preceding its Wednesday launch.

“The hype to some extent is good because it’s bringing new attention” to fuel cell technology, says Mr. Makower, much the same way the buzz around Tesla has brought new attention to the electric car market.

“If he can reach $3,000 for a 1 or 2 kilowatt system that provides both heat and power, that’s a real game changer. But the real question is delivering,” says Pernick.

Pernick says he's encouraged by the silicon technology that Bloom is using to make its fuel cells, but still has many questions. And, he says, "there’s no one technology that’s going to change everything in electricity. These transitions take decades, not years.”

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