PhillyDeals: New Delaware plant would build fuel cells

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell “had a can-do attitude about the whole process,” Bloom Energy’s boss said. JEFF FUSCO / Getty Images
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell “had a can-do attitude about the whole process,” Bloom Energy’s boss said. JEFF FUSCO / Getty Images
Posted: May 01, 2012

Delaware gets it, says KR Sridhar, space-engineering professor-turned-Silicon Valley energy missionary, and boss of Bloom Energy (formerly Ion America), which plans to build what he says are efficient electricity-generating fuel cells — a Holy Grail of energy engineering — in Newark, Del., on the rubble of an old Chrysler plant.

With state support, of course: $16 million in grants, a new state law that allows Delmarva Power to use fuel cells instead of solar or wind power for green-energy credits, and a consumer surcharge that will boost the cost of electricity to Delaware homeowners by more than $1 a month, for up to 21 years, with the money going to Bloom.

“Gov. [Jack] Markell, really, he’s a political entrepreneur,” Sridhar said. “He had a can-do attitude about the whole process.” And not just Markell: The state’s (all-Democratic) congressional delegation and leaders of its (Democratic-led) General Assembly visited Sridhar to show that Democrat Markell spoke for the state’s whole leadership, after state Environment Secretary Collin O’Mara scouted Bloom on a visit to San Jose’s city hall, where he used to work.

Markell’s team even invited Delaware’s most recent Republicangovernor, Mike Castle, to meet leaders of Bloom, cofounded by Sridhar in 2001 with money from Silicon Valley investor John Doerr and free rent from NASA. They were all in Newark yesterday for Bloom’s groundbreaking.

“I wish we could clone [Markell] for a few more states,” Sridhar said. He has “everyone pulling in the same direction.” He declined to compare his reception by, say, Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

Sridhar spoke before that rarest and most-sought-after public event of 2012: groundbreaking for a new plant that is supposed to create 900 manufacturing and technical jobs, plus hundreds more in supply plants he hopes can be lured by more state “incentives.”

Unlike the delayed Fisker electric-car plant that Markell and Vice President Biden have been trying to lure to another ex-auto plant, Bloom has a flagship Silicon Valley plant that is already mass-producing its main product, a freezer-sized “fuel cell” that, linked with other cells, runs natural gas (or similar fuels) through a battery of reactive ions to produce energy for electricity, along with water and carbon dioxide. Sridhar has wrapped his process in patents and industrial secrecy, though he says it doesn’t rely on scarce “rare earth” metals.

The Bloom team is heavy with former auto executives, including Gary Convis, retired head of Toyota’s biggest U.S. plant, in Georgetown, Ky. Ford veteran Barry Sharpe will head the Newark plant. Hill International of Marlton is among the contractors. Bloom is a tenant of the site’s new owner, the University of Delaware, whose president, ex-Wharton dean Patrick Harker, plans classrooms, labs and other industries at a Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) campus.

Executives from Delmarva, Washington Gas, AT&T, Owens-Corning, and other “Bloom box” users (Apple, eBay and Wal-Mart are also clients) testified that the cells are more reliable (less weather-dependent) than solar or wind power. “We were looking to find a very clean, reliable source of energy,” said AT&T ‘s energy director, John Schinter. “There’s very little maintenance associated with [Bloom].”

Delmarva Power officials noted they need fewer workers for fuel cells than for equivalent-powered coal plants; bad news for the power company’s workers. Delmarva president Gary Stockbridge praised Bloom boxes as “extremely reliable units” that can be placed at electrical substations near existing gas lines. That reduces the need to extend the power grid with costly new lines.

The boxes still don’t pay for themselves. They have been installed mostly in states that punish carbon-burning and give incentives for low-emissions electricity. Sridhar insists the price (now somewhere around $1 million for a group big enough to power a 100,000-square-foot building or 150 homes) will come down as he makes more of them. “Like Moore’s Law,” he said. Or maybe not that fast: “We’ll figure that out.” And what about when natural gas prices rise again? There’s always biogas, which will keep getting cheaper, he hopes.

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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