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Fuel cells

Patent Harbinger: Where is Distributed Energy Headed?

I advise clients to watch certain metrics for emerging direction. A good example popped up recently in all the hype over the Bloom fuel cell announcements.
Bloom is a startup that has built fuel cell “servers” supplying electricity to a number of Silicon Valley firms. If you’ve missed the hype there’s a healthy helping
here. The servers at those big SV firms run a cool $750,000. Not pocket change to us consumers.
The Bloom technology is interesting because of a several factors. 1) It
might scale down. The company’s statement that they could be producing home-sized units for a $3000 price point in a few years causes ripples in the energy sector. 2) It shows off a technology that’s taken a back seat in the media, fuel cells. 3) It demonstrates early hype for a technology. I encourage skepticism when something gets too much media attention.
But what caught my eye as my scanning system picked this up is the longer term pattern of patents in “clean energy.”
My favorite weekly scanning source, The Economist, showed this chart at left.
When you think “alternative energy” or hear it in a politician’s speech you probably think solar, wind, electric vehicle, or maybe biofuel. You don’t think of fuel cells. But a patent rate three times the other technologies causes me to point to it as a trend to watch carefully.
The Economist hypothesizes it’s due to corporate R&D stimulated by government subsidies. Probably the major driver. When you start delving into the practicalities of the Bloom style of cell you see problems. Very, very high operating temperatures. 24 hour a day operation which gets to be a problem if you can’t sell your electricity back to the grid especially at night when demand is low. A reliable source (read that as natural gas).
My forecast: true renewables like solar and wind look like the best bets. But keep an eye on fuel cells for the long term.