Bloom Energy opened a mega fuel cell factory in the Bay Area last week in response to significant demand. The San Jose-based company’s new $200 million, 164,000 square foot factory in Fremont is expected to produce 1 GW of fuel cells by the end of next year, replacing its facility in Sunnyvale that maxed out at 200 MW of production.
“Demand is so strong and we need more space, we need more people, and we need more machines,” said company spokesperson Jennifer Duffourg.
Bloom’s fuel cells are powered by natural gas or biogas. They are used in microgrids that can keep power flowing during outages driven by wildfires, intense temperatures or other events. They can ensure power still flows to medically vulnerable people dependent on powered medical devices and to safety agencies and other critical services. The fuel cells also are used to provide onsite, round-the-clock electricity for public and industrial facilities.
“Powering our homes and our communities has never been more important–especially as the Golden State weathers some of the most dire impacts of climate change, like extreme heat and wildfire,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in Fremont.
“Resiliency has become a strategic imperative,” Duffourg added.
The fuel cells act as giant batteries that can keep electricity flowing as long as they are fueled and can also be put in reverse to create hydrogen. In this mode, they become electrolyzers, splitting hydrogen off fossil fuels or water molecules, with the energy source coming from fossil, solar or wind power flowing on the grid. Bloom lets the customers decide whether the hydrogen fuel it buys is made from fossil fuels, or made from water and powered by renewables to create green hydrogen. The latter is clean but is more expensive as it is an emerging technology.
Since the 2020 August rolling blackouts in California, the governor and utility regulators have called for a huge increase in supply and demand response and other resources that reduce energy consumption to keep power flowing when the grid gets heavily taxed by demand from air conditioners during intense heat waves or when fires reduce power flowing across high voltage lines.
During blackouts two summers ago, Bloom fuel cells generated 265 MW of power across 500 sites, preventing “roughly 270,000 additional people from losing power,” according to Duffourg. There are microgrids at 50 of those sites.
The rise in outages in threatening weather has led to a surge in the installations of diesel-power backup units in the state, which increases air pollution and has a disproportionate impact on poorer communities, many of which were already more polluted before diesel generators added to the problem. When the grid operator declares a power emergency, these diesel systems can fire up and are not subject to air pollution limits.
Bloom’s new factory “appears to anchor their efforts with fuel cell technology, which is generally better than diesel-based solutions,” said Steven Moss, principal with energy consultant M.Cubed. Moss authored a study last year finding diesel generation amounted to 15% of California’s grid capacity.
Fuel cells produce less toxic and climate emissions than diesel-powered microgrids or other fossil-fueled generating units because the gas in a fuel cell is not combusted but generates power via a chemical process.
Duffourg said she was unable to quantify the amount of greenhouse gases and toxic emissions produced by fuel cells because each state has a different resource mix.
Bloom CEO KR Sridhar touted the fuel cells for avoiding the challenges of traditional power plants, such as the maintenance of power lines. He added that fuel cells also can be manufactured and installed quickly, unlike nuclear plants, with the Fremont factory expedited to produce more than 1 GW of fuel cells a year after 2023.