Apple data center helps fuel Bloom Energy move to East Coast

Bloom Energy today opens a plant in Delaware to make its Bloom Boxes, which will be used by the local utility and to power Apple's North Carolina data center.

Bloom's Energy Servers at eBay which run on biogas, which Apple also plans to do at its North Carolina data center.
Bloom's Energy Servers at eBay, which run on biogas. Apple plans to use Bloom Energy Severs at its North Carolina data center. Bloom Energy

On the day Bloom Energy officially opened shop on the East Coast, the company's CEO confirmed Bloom will supply fuel cells to Apple's North Carolina data center.

Bloom Energy today is breaking ground on a factory in Newark, Del., to build its Bloom Energy Servers, or Bloom Boxes, which produce electricity from natural gas or biogas.

The facility, which was a former Chrysler plant, will have the capacity to turn out 1,000 Bloom Boxes a year, Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar said in an interview with CNET. Each fuel cell, which is the size of few refrigerators, can generate 100 kilowatts of electric power.

Sridhar also confirmed that Apple's Maiden, N.C., data center will use Bloom's fuel cells. The data center, now under construction, will have 4.8 megawatts worth of fuel cells powered by biogas. It is expected to be the largest corporate fuel cell installation.

"Apple is an existing customer and they will use our fuel cells in their North Carolina data center," Sridhar said. CNET contacted Apple and will update the story with more information when it's available.

A fuel cell converts the energy in natural gas, or biogas, into electricity in a chemical reaction that gives off almost no air pollutants. Biogas contains methane from the decomposing organic matter. It can be captured from landfills and dairy or pig farms.

Generating power from a natural gas fuel cell reduces carbon emissions by about 40 percent to 50 percent compared to the U.S. grid, according to Bloom. It converts about 60 percent of the fuel's energy into electricity and no energy is lost over transmission lines as happens with the grid, Sridhar said.

California-based Bloom Energy was attracted to Delaware in part by a renewable energy subsidy for fuel cells, which is expected to add about $1.35 a month to residential bills, according to reports. Local utility Delmarva Power also plans to purchase 30 megawatts of fuel cells which would be the largest purchase for a U.S. utility.

Utilities can add fuel cells to beef up the grid infrastructure in places of growing electricity need without having to build new transmission lines, Sridhar said.

But the bulk of the company's customers are corporations, such as Apple, which Sridhar expects to be the case going forward.

The cost of power from fuel cells is roughly the same as the grid in some locations and the payback on a purchase in those places is three to five years. Most of Bloom Energy's customers have been in California, which offers a subsidy for fuel cell power generation. Fuel cell power costs also benefit from plummeting natural gas prices in the U.S.

"But most importantly, they are buying it for reliability because it's on site," Sridhar said. "It's not just the electrons, they are buying a reliable and clean solution."

Sridhar to declined to say whether Bloom Energy, which was heavily hyped when it launched two years ago , has plans to go public or is profitable.

He said he expects rapid growth in fuel cells, but noted it's a manufacturing-based industry, so the adoption rate won't be the same as software or the Internet. "We believe it will take off rapidly but we are building an industry and we need to understand it will be rapid for manufacturing," he said.

 

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