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Bloom Energy tech 'not unique,' analyst says

Sam Jaffe of IDC Energy Insights argues that the ballyhooed Bloom boxes aren't so different from what other fuel cell makers have, and is expensive to boot.

One energy analyst is taking a pessimistic view of Bloom Energy's highly touted fuel cell, saying that there's "nothing that unique" about the technology.

Bloom Energy's CEO K.R Sridhar
Bloom Energy's CEO K.R Sridhar Josh Lowensohn/CNET

On Wednesday, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based start-up introduced the Bloom Energy fuel cell, which is designed to be stacked into small blocks and housed in a unit about the size of a refrigerator and sold as an alternative to electricity from the grid. The company has begun selling 100kW units, costing between $700,000 and $800,000 each, and some of the "Bloom boxes" are already in use by companies such as Google and eBay.

"It's not bogus," said Sam Jaffe, a senior research analyst at IDC Energy Insights, but that doesn't mean Bloom's technology is all that impressive. "They have clearly spent a lot of money on research and developing this product, but there's nothing that I can see that is that unique about it."

And it's not cheap. "It's a very expensive fuel cell. There are a lot of other vendors out there with very expensive fuel cells," Jaffe said.

One aspect of the Bloom technology that's garnered a lot of attention is the fuel-switching ability. "That is not unique," Jaffe said. "Any high-temperature fuel cell should be able to do that. The fact that it's solid oxide and it's primarily ceramic opens up the possibility of making it much more cheaply, but every start-up in the energy field has an expensive product that they claim one day will be cheap. There is no reason to believe that Bloom has the ability to make it that much more cheaply. I'm pretty pessimistic about it."

And generating electricity using a Bloom box is not necessarily going to be any greener than getting electricity from the grid, as Jaffe explains in his IDC Insights blog. "At a capital cost of $7-$8 per watt, it's hard to find a competitive technology that's more expensive than buying a Bloom box. Even photovoltaics cost less when purchased on the scale of 100 kW at a time."