Bloom Box: Best Product or Simply First Mover?

Silicon Valley startup Bloom Energy unveiled the Bloom box yesterday. The Bloom box is a solid oxide fuel cell that can power multiple homes independently of the existing energy grid. Bloom Energy´s design is groundbreaking–until you look at its competitors, who are nearing market launch. The Guardian analyzes the situation:

Other developers, such as Ceres Power in the UK and Ceramic Fuel Cells in Australia/Germany, have products close to market launch and – so far – it is completely unclear whether Bloom’s product is better or likely to be more attractively priced or more long-lasting.

The problems with SOFCs, probably including the Bloom Box, are well known. The fuel cells burn out and have to be replaced by professional engineers. Ceramic Fuel Cells talks of the units needed to be switched every two years though the company hopes this will improve to once every four years. The cost of the units is high. Ceramic Fuel Cells has mentioned a figure of about £2,000 ($3,000+ ) for a machine that can continuously develop 2 kilowatts of electric power but I think this number is highly optimistic and the true figure is likely to be several times this level for some years to come.

The UK government’s new feed-in tariffs provide a substantial incentive for householders to install SOFCs in domestic homes. Ceramic Fuel Cells has made great play of the attractiveness of this new subsidy. Provided its power plants work at even approximately the price suggested Ceramic Fuel Cells will find a ready market in the UK. The Bloom Boxes, which appear to be aimed at office buildings and go up to 100 kilowatts, will not benefit from this subsidy.

Does the Bloom Box represent a substantial technical advance over Ceramic Fuel Cells? On the information provided so far, I could see no obvious technical innovation that puts Bloom ahead of the Ceramic Fuel Cells machines. But Ceramic Fuel Cells works from Melbourne, not Silicon Valley, and can’t get the California Governor and Colin Powell to come to its product launches.

The Guardian suggests the Bloom box may not be the best SOFC on the market, once more SOFCs actually hit the market. Bloom, however, has a first-mover advantage so powerful that its brand will be associated with SOFCs in general for a long time. That could make people perceive it as the best. And that perception could be all that ultimately matters.

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