Archive for 2013
Last week, Fortune magazine’s Dan Primack reported that solid-oxide fuel cell manufacturer Bloom Energy has raised an additional $130 million in new venture capital, giving it a total of $1.1 billion raised since its inception in 2001—more than any other fuel cell company ever, and on par with the best-funded start-ups of all time.
$30 million of the new capital came from Credit Suisse, with the rest provided by what Fortune calls “an unidentified new investor,” and is an extension of a 2011 funding round that valued the company at $2.7 billion.
The news of new VC comes as financial data show Bloom moving slowly closer to profitability. Last November, Fortune revealed that Bloom lost $32 million in the third quarter of 2012 (the most recent period for which data have been made available), with a net cash loss of around $80 million—not great numbers, obviously. But Bloom generated over $100 million in revenue in that quarter alone, and the company now claims it is gross-margin positive on a pro-forma basis (essentially meaning it now earns a profit on each sale, even if operating costs carry big losses). Big cash expenses can cripple start-ups–just ask Fisker Automotive–but Bloom’s ability to raise venture capital makes high operating costs less of a concern in the short term.
Bill Kurtz, the company’s CFO, released a statement saying Bloom is on track to become profitable sometime in 2013. This might seem like a lofty goal for a company still losing tens of millions of dollars per quarter. But there are quite a lot of encouraging signs for Bloom. The $101 million it generated in 3Q 2012 represented a 26% increase from the previous quarter, a boost fueled by booking 87 new customers. It also spent 56% less cash than it did in Q2.
The variables seem to be trending the right way for Bloom. Operating costs are decreasing, gross margins on product sales have expanded into profitability, and its customer base is expanding. The product it is selling—clean energy—has a market in every industry, and Bloom’s clientele is starting to reflect that. In 2012, the company received new orders from clothing retailers (Urban Outfitters, 600 kilowatts), semiconductor manufacturers (Altera and Xilinx, 1 megawatt each), food companies (Taylor Farms, 1 MW; Roll Global, 4.4 MW), and even an oil company (Baker Hughes, 300 kW). And its biggest customers are global leaders: Walmart, eBay, Coca-Cola, Adobe, FedEx, and AT&T all operate Bloom Boxes.
Things are looking so good for Bloom that there are rumors of an IPO in the works. That is likely a long way out, still; even if Bloom does become profitable in 2013, it is still heavily dependent on tax credits and government subsidies, and its margins might wither if they are phased out too soon. And with the notable exceptions of Tesla Motors and Silver Spring Networks, markets have not been kind to clean-tech IPOs recently.
Still, if there is a fuel cell company that could successfully go public, it’s Bloom. The four biggest publicly traded fuel cell companies (Ballard Power Systems, FuelCell Energy, Hydrogenics, and Plug Power) collectively lost over $100 million in 2012, and generated $238 million in revenues combined all year. With Bloom bringing almost half of that amount in a single quarter, it’s not hard to imagine a Bloom stock performing better than any of them on the market.
It’s still too early to say if Bloom will achieve profitability in 2013, or even at all. Still, profits or not, Bloom has shown its product can go head-to-head with traditional stationary backup power sources. That’s a victory for fuel cells in its own right. But if Bloom can successfully pull off an IPO, it would be a major boost for an industry that the markets seem to have forgotten about, and a reward for all the investors who have pumped over a billion dollars into the company. For now, though, industry-watchers and investors should be heartened by Bloom’s recent performance, and hopeful that it can continue on into the black.
At President Obama’s early May summit with Central American presidents in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose wanted to talk about energy policies–specifically, hydrogen. Costa Rican engineers are developing hydrogen technologies that could help the Central American nation reach its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021.
“Obama was impressed that [hydrogen technology] is being developed in a country as small as Costa Rica, and the proposal to the U.S. is that we cooperate with exchanges of university researchers, investors and young engineers,” Costa Rican Environment Minister René Castro told the Tico Times after the summit.
90% of Costa Rica’s electricity is already produced from renewable sources (mostly hydroelectric), but there is still room to reduce hydrocarbon imports even further, especially in the transportation sector. Furthermore, the country’s abundance of water and wind make hydrogen an attractive alternative fuel.
The Ad Astra Company, founded by Costa Rican astronaut and scientist Franklin Chang, is designing and building cheap, small-scale wind turbines that can be used to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen. Currently, the company has 0.5-kilowatt and 5-kilowatt models.
It is also developing a compression-based hydrogen storage system, and has an agreement with the Costa Rican Oil Refinery (RECOPE) to perform experiments to that end.
Ad Astra is also working with Cummings, a leading U.S. manufacturer of internal combustion generators, and Costa Rica-based EARTH University to build an electric generator that runs on hydrogen or biogas. Ad Astra engineer told Juan Del Valle told the Tico Times the technology could eventually be used to create a conventional vehicle that operates on biogas enriched with hydrogen.
For now, the company plans to combine the three projects into a program that powers farms and small businesses in remote areas in an effort to make them energy self-sufficient.
Last Friday, officials from Dominion Power and FuelCell Energy broke ground on what will be the largest fuel cell power project in North America, a 14.9-megawatt fuel cell power plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut that will generate enough electricity to power 15,000 homes.
Dominion Bridgeport Fuel Cell will feature five Direct FuelCell stationary fuel cell power plants and an organic rankine turbine that will convert heat from the fuel cells into electricity as well. Dominion will sell the power from the facility to Connecticut Light & Power under a 15-year fixed energy purchase agreement. When the project goes live in December, it will be the largest fuel cell installation outside of South Korea.
Located on a patch of post-industrial blight in Bridgeport’s West End, the renewable energy generated by the plant will help Connecticut, already a leader in fuel cell manufacturing and deployment, make its grid cleaner and more reliable. Construction will likely bring economic benefits, too: FuelCell Energy has expanded its Connecticut workforce by 20 percent, or more than 50 jobs, in the past six months to accommodate the project’s labor requirements.
Speaking in front of Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy at the ground-breaking ceremony, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch called the project “a great example of public-private partnerships working together to create jobs, expand economic development, and make our environment cleaner by producing virtually pollution-free electricity with a low carbon footprint.”
The $65 million facility is partially funded through Project 150, a statewide effort to increase renewable and clean energy projects in Connecticut by 150 megawatts. The project also received a tax incentive from the City of Bridgeport.
In recent years, weather events such as Winter Storm Alfred and Superstorm Sandy have devastated Connecticut’s power grid and caused lengthy outages. Switching to a model where power is generated at several smaller, more reliable fuel cell plants–instead of at massive coal plants like the Bridgeport Harbor Power Station–might make the grid more resilient in the face of storms. That’s the future envisioned by Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty.
“[Fuel cells] can stay up when the grid goes down,” he told the Connecticut Post. “There’s a very strong possibility that in the future, we’ll be moving away from the big power plant model.”
So far 2013 has been an exciting year for the commercialization of fuel cell buses. Connecticut Transit (CTTransit) has announced plans to procure a new, heavy-duty, fuel cell powered bus from the Center for Transportation and the Environment. This will be the first-ever commercially procured fuel cell bus in the United States. All fuel cell bus deployments in the past have been funded at least partially by federal and state research programs such as the Federal Transit Administration’s National Fuel Cell Bus Program, The Ohio Third Frontier Fuel Cell Program, California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program, and a joint DOE – DOD program called the PEM Fuel Cell Backup Demonstration. Connecticut Transit reports that procurement of the fuel cell bus was conducted under a standard Request for Proposal (RFP) process and that they expect to receive the bus by the fall of 2014.
The Center for Transportation and the Environment has embarked on other fuel cell bus projects using technology from Proterra and Hydrogenics. Under the demonstration program, the new FCEB will operate in Austin, Texas for one year, and then in the District of Columbia for one year.
There have been several other fuel cell bus deployments across the country. The University of Delaware has announced that it will add two more fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs) to its fleet, bringing the total to four. The University will also be developing hydrogen-refueling stations on and around the campus. The station will be installed on the school’s Science Technology and Research campus. The first fuel cell bus came to the campus in 2005, and the University has procured all of its fuel cells from Ballard Power Systems.
Golden Gate Transit, the transportation authority of the San Francisco Bay area, added a new third generation FCEB to its regular commuter routes. The addition was a part of GGT’s Zero Emissions Bay Area program, which incorporates five sub-agencies: AC Transit, GGT, Santa Clara VTA, SamTrans, and Muni. The project has made the Bay Area home to the largest single fleet of fuel cell buses in the nation. California leads the United States in fuel cell research and development, especially in its transportation infrastructure, and has been a hotspot for fuel cell innovation and collaboration.
The California Fuel Cell Partnership has released its report, “A Road Map for Fuel Cell Electric Buses in California: A zero-emission solution for public transit.” The report focuses on the status of FCEB commercialization in California and worldwide and provides suggestions for policymakers on effective means of incorporating fuel cell buses into the commercial market.
These recent developments in fuel cell bus deployment are encouraging and suggest that widespread usage of fuel cells in public transportation may be near at hand.
Fuel Cells 2000 has developed a Google Map showing public and private hydrogen fueling stations in North America. The hydrogen stations are located across North America and Hawaii, and (where possible) include information regarding fueling infrastructure, hydrogen provider, as well as the number and type of vehicles they serve. The map was created for demonstration purposes and does not reflect exact locations of fueling stations.
More than 100 hydrogen stations are operating across North America, providing fuel for the military, handling equipment, passenger and utility vehicles, and buses. While only 10 are currently available to the public, this alternative fuel could help the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and become more energy-independent. As shown on the map, public fueling stations are primarily located in California, but an expanded hydrogen fueling infrastructure is necessary to promote the fuel cell vehicle industry on a national scale.
Dozens of hydrogen fueling stations have been installed by elite corporations to serve large fleets of fuel cell-powered forklifts. The biggest single fleets are owned by BMW and Central Grocers (each with 230+ Plug Power forklifts), while Sysco—which owns seven fueling stations—has the biggest fleet nationwide (approaching 700 forklifts). Hydrogen stations are also being employed by several bus operators, including AC Transit in Emeryville, California; the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority in Ohio; and BC Transit in Vancouver, Canada.
The United States is a leader in fuel cell technology, but faces growing competition from Germany, Japan and Korea. Federal assistance and government policies promoting fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure are needed to maintain the U.S.’s competitive edge and jumpstart the commercialization of fuel cell technology.
View Hydrogen Fueling Stations in North America in a larger map
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For more reports, charts and case studies on hydrogen fueling stations and fuel cells, please visit fuelcells.org.
Japan has just opened its first public hydrogen station in a non-industrial area, adjacent to a conventional gas station in Ebina, Kanagawa prefecture.
The Japanese government had previously required all hydrogen fueling stations to be located in industrial areas. Last year that regulation was changed, allowing hydrogen stations to be placed in residential areas and near gas stations. The goal is to increase the number of fuel cell vehicles on Japanese roadways.
The new public hydrogen station was developed through a partnership of JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). JX Nippon Oil & Energy would like to develop 40 or more hydrogen stations by 2015. Both Honda and Toyota have fuel cell vehicles operating on Japanese roadways. Toyota has also deployed several fuel cell buses.
Also in recent news, Honda is testing the use of a fuel cell vehicle to deliver power to single-family homes during a disaster. The Honda fuel cell car could deliver a maximum of 9 kW of power, which is sufficient to power an average home for six days. During a two-year experiment, the car will send electricity to a Japanese home once a week, between 10 AM and 4 PM, to examine how much power the car can provide to the home.
Last August, Toyota announced that it had equipped a fuel cell bus with a power supply system to deliver a maximum of 3 kW of power, which could power home appliances continuously for more than 100 hours. Toyota is also developing a vehicle-to-home (V2H) system that would deliver from a fuel cell bus to a building to provide a maximum output of 9.8 kW for 50 hours, enough to power lights in a school gymnasium for about five days. The V2H system will be tested in Japan during 2013-2014.
EPA has just released its Green Power Partnership Top Partner Rankings, highlighting the annual green power use of its partners – which range from Fortune 500® companies to local, state and federal governments. Although fuel cells are barely recognized in the ratings, Fuel Cells 2000 knows that almost half of these partners have embraced fuel cell power generation (many of these partners are actually cited by EPA for their use of biogas).
For example, in the EPA’s Top 20 On-site Generation rankings:
- #1 on the list is Wal-Mart Stores Inc., cited for its use of biogas, solar and wind. Wal-Mart now generates power at 26 of its California WalMart and Sam’s Club retail sites using Bloom Energy fuel cells powered by directed biogas.
- #3 is Apple, included for its use of biogas. Apple recently started up 10-MW fuel cell system at its Maiden, North Carolina data center that uses directed biogas. The site is completely off-grid, powered both by the fuel cell system and solar photovoltaics.
- #4 is BMW Manufacturing Company’s Greer, South Carolina facility, which uses biogas to fuel four gas turbines that supply about 10 MW of the plant’s power. The biogas is sourced from the nearby Palmetto Landfill. The plant also operates more than 230 fuel cell-powered forklifts and is in the midst of a project to determine the feasibility of converting some of the landfill methane to hydrogen fuel for its forklift fleet.
- #5 is Coca-Cola Refreshments, which is recognized for its recently installed landfill-gas-to-energy system at an Atlanta facility. But we want to note that in 2011 Coca-Cola subsidiary, Odwalla, installed a 500-kW Bloom Energy fuel cell system at its juice packaging facility in Dinuba, California that generates 30% of the plant’s power and operates using directed biogas. In addition, Coca-Cola also has deployed natural gas-powered fuel cells to generate onsite power at facilities in California, New York and Connecticut, and operates fuel cell-powered forklifts at warehouses in North Carolina and California.
- #10, the city of San Jose, California, is included for its use of solar power and biogas. In 2012, the city installed a 1.4 MW fuel cell system at the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant that will generate power using methane (biogas) produced during the wastewater treatment process. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has also announced plans to install a natural gas-powered fuel cell at its San Jose maintenance facility.
- #11, the city of San Diego, California, is cited for generating power using biogas, small-hydro and solar power. We know that three fuel cell power plants (a 2.8 MW fuel cell at the University of California, San Diego; a 1.4 MW fuel cell at San Diego’s South Bay Water Reclamation Plant: and a 300 kW fuel cell at San Diego’s Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant) use biogas generated at the Point Loma wastewater treatment plant as the primary fuel source.
- #14, Adobe Systems is cited by EPA for its fuel cell use (yay!): “In late 2010, Adobe announced the installation of 12 Bloom Energy fuel cells at its San Jose campus. These fuel cells collectively provide approximately 30 percent of the campus’ electricity needs, and after planned upgrades take place in 2012, they are expected to meet 80 percent of Adobe’s San Jose power consumption. To reduce its use of fossil fuels, Adobe purchases green power in the form of clean biogas sourced from a landfill to power the fuel cells.”
- #18, Safeway, is recognized for using biogas, solar, and wind power. We know that in 2009, Safeway installed fuel cells at a new retail site in Santa Cruz, California. This site uses 100 percent renewable energy: the fuel cells provide 60-70 percent of the store’s power, while 896 solar panels on the roof deliver 30-35 percent of the power.
- #19, City of Tulare, California, is also recognized for its fuel cell (another yay!): “Tulare currently generates on-site power with biogas fuel cells and solar photovoltaic panels at its wastewater treatment plant, which has reduced the overall operating costs of the plant and saved its sewer customers money in the long run.”
Hopefully, in future years, the EPA will call even more attention to their partners’ use of fuel cell technology!
Green Power Partnership Top Partner Rankings: http://www.epa.gov/greenpower/toplists/
EPA’s Top 20 On-site Generation Rankings: http://www.epa.gov/greenpower/toplists/top20onsite.htm
For more information on how companies are using fuel cells, please visit http://www.fuelcells.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/FC-Business-Case-2012.pdf
Nuvera, which produces fuel cell systems and hydrogen delivery products in Billerica, Massachusetts, believes the program will help engage local policy makers and the general public in conversation over hydrogen infrastructure and FCEVs as they relate to economic growth and regional zero-emission vehicle mandates.
The two-year, joint vehicle demonstration is the first of its kind in Massachusetts. Toyota currently has four FCEVs that use a fueling station at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado; two that use a fueling station in Hempstead, New York; and ten that fill up at a Proton Onsite station in Wallingford, Connecticut. All three locations generate hydrogen with renewable energy, using either wind (Colorado and New York) or solar power (Connecticut).
The cars will be fueled using Nuvera’s PowerTap hydrogen generation and refueling equipment at its Billerica headquarters. The company’s PowerTap system generates high-purity hydrogen from water and natural gas. Several units are deployed at industrial units to refuel fuel cell forklift fleets.
According to Nuvera’s press release: “Toyota’s vehicle demonstration program gives policy makers, local authorities and the general public in Massachusetts a chance to become familiar with fuel cell vehicles prior to market introduction,” said Kevin Kinnaw, National Manager for Regulatory Affairs at Toyota Motor Sales, USA. “The program also highlights the infrastructure side of the equation. With its on-site hydrogen generation appliance, Nuvera has developed a practical refueling solution that could have far-reaching consequences for the commercial success of zero-emission fuel cell vehicles.”
The Phantom Eye, a hydrogen-powered, airborne system being developed by Boeing, demonstrates the inherent efficiency and versatility of hydrogen fuel. The unmanned aircraft, which is designed to serve as a communications relay hub, will be capable of continuous flight for four days and reach 65,000 feet—all while producing zero emissions.
As one of the most efficient fuels by weight, hydrogen is ideal in long range, aerial applications. According to Boeing, the Phantom Eye “has proven the exceptional fuel economy of the liquid hydrogen propulsion system.” The 9,800 lb aircraft is kept aloft with two 2.3-liter liquid hydrogen combustion engines, producing a combined 300 horsepower. According to a Boeing representative, the engines are modified versions of those found in the Ford Ranger, each with three-stage turbochargers to compress ambient air for high-altitude flight in the stratosphere. Fuel is stored in two 8-foot diameter cryogenic tanks, and has roughly three times the energy content of aviation fuel by weight.
The Phantom Eye has completed two autonomous test flights during its development process. The first test flight took place in June 2012, with the aircraft reaching 4,080 feet and a cruising speed of 62 knots. During its second test flight in February 2013, the Phantom Eye kept aloft for 66 minutes and reached more than 8,000 feet at the same cruising speed. Afterwards, Boeing Phantom Works President Darryl Davis said, “No other system holds the promise of offering on-demand, persistent [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and communications to any region in the world.”
Since the engines have performed very well in test flights, Boeing is exploring the possibility of adapting the hydrogen propulsion technology to larger applications. The HALE concept, based on the Phantom Eye, would be capable of flying for at least seven days without refueling while carrying payloads in excess of 2,000 lbs.
While fuel cells are not slated for widespread use in aviation propulsion, airports and aviation companies are recognizing that they can reduce local emissions. Fuel cell systems have been demonstrated in hydraulic aircraft systems and ground systems, including tow tractors and baggage vehicles. Fuel cells could also be used in cargo reloading, electrical main engine start, air conditioning, and supply potable, heated water.
Researchers at Virginia Tech have discovered a new way to extract large amounts of hydrogen from plants, a breakthrough that could revolutionize hydrogen production and make the fuel cost-competitive sooner than anticipated.
A team led by Y.H. Percival Zhang has succeeded in using a specially designed enzyme to liberate large amounts of pure hydrogen from xylose, a simple sugar found in every plant. The reaction occurs at low temperatures and normal atmospheric pressure, produces no greenhouse gases, and achieves an energy efficiency of over 100%.
Because of its efficiency and the abundant availability of plant biomass, the new process has the potential to transform the way hydrogen is produced, reducing a barrier that has long hindered adoption of hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).
Currently, industrial hydrogen—a $100 billion industry—is produced mainly through steam reformation of natural gas, a costly and inefficient procedure that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. As Jeff McMahon points out at Forbes, the wastefulness of natural gas reformation was the main reason former Energy Secretary Steven Chu pushed FCEVs to the back burner in favor of battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs). The clean power and efficiency of fuel cells isn’t worth much if the hydrogen they use comes at a high energy and emissions cost.
Zhang’s method could change that. If the technology makes it to the marketplace (which Jonathan Mielenz of Oak Ridge National Laboratory says could happen within three years), cheap, clean, renewable hydrogen would become a reality. That would eliminate one of the two biggest barriers to FCEV adoption identified in a recent National Resources Committee report (the other being the construction of hydrogen infrastructure).
The research team worked for seven years to engineer the special enzyme. If it ends up making hydrogen renewable and affordable, the payoff—making FCEVs a viable competitor to gasoline engines and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels—would be enormous.
The discovery was published in the international edition of the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.