Sand and Sludge: A Day of Green Energy Innovation

The top energy news today is undoubtedly the public unveiling of Bloom Energy's new hydrogen fuel cell.

Eight years in the making, but unveiled only a bit more than a week since Bill Gates spoke on the need for energy miracles, the Bloom fuel cell is made out of a sand-based ceramic and can power 100 homes with a unit that fits in a parking spot.

Here are some of the specs:
  • cheap power: 8 to 10 cents per kWh, cheaper than average energy costs in many US states.
  • longevity: each "bloom box" has a project life span of 10 years
  • efficiency: the cell produces electricity from natural gas or biogas with 50 to 55% efficiency. That's about the same as a combined cycle natural gas plant, and well over the 30% efficiency of the coal fired plants that still supply over 50% of US and 23% of Canadian power.
  • compactness: A 100-kilowatt Bloom Energy Server will fit in a parking space. That's enough power for just under 100 homes – depending on local energy use. By comparison, one large wind turbine generates 1000kW, but can't be parked quite as easily.

Green inc.
has good coverage of the promising, but still unproven nature of the Bloom Box. Large companies like
Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, and eBay have all installed "Boxes" to meet some of the energy needs of their offices or retail locations. Building up from those types of uses, this could be a technology that will help speed the transition to smart decentralized urban electricity networks.

What isn't clear is how the "Box" stacks up against established technologies like combined natural gas heat and power(CHP) systems. CHP has similar efficiencies and can be rolled out at a similar scale. That's a roundabout way to come back to a good critique of the focus on new technologies. If things like CHP are already available but not widely used, maybe we need to be looking at barriers to their roll-out and large scale adoption - not hunting for the next "miracle" technology.

From Post-Recycling Waste to Ethanol
Less glamorous, but still interesting, is news of the continued success of Quebec's waste-to-ethanol processor Enerkem. Enerkem has perfected a process that transforms post-recycling municipal waste into ethanol. Their process can use anything from sorted municipal solid waste, construction and demolition wood, treated wood, forest residues and agricultural waste as a feedstock.

The company has a plant operating in Quebec already, with others on the way in Alberta and Mississippi. In the city of Edmonton they are purchasing whatever waste is leftover once recyclable glass metal and paper is removed and will be producing 9.5 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol.

The Enerkem approach is recycling taken to a very basic level; one company rep. described is as “recycling the carbon molecules in this garbage." It also turns post-recycling waste – usually deemed worthless – into a high demand energy source. Nice trick.


1 Response to "Sand and Sludge: A Day of Green Energy Innovation"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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