As wildfires raged last October, more than a million northern Californians suffered through blackouts, their electricity cut in order to reduce the likelihood of high winds sparking new conflagrations. In smoke, KR Sridhar smelled opportunity. His company, publicly traded Bloom Energy, sells fuel cells—steel boxes that generate electricity using natural gas. The boxes, which it calls energy servers, emit a nearly pure stream of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, but they are supposed to make much less of it than traditional power plants and do so without generating lots of smog ingredients like nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxides.
Even better, Bloom’s units get their fuel via underground pipelines unaffected by the Diablo winds that threatened California’s high-voltage wires and led to the power outages that Sridhar considers intolerable in any modern society, let alone in Silicon Valley.
“Every time there is a disaster your power price is going to go up, because somebody has to pay for the damage,” Sridhar says. “That is the catalyst for change.” Bloom is capitalizing on the outages by wooing potential customers in fire-risk zones to protect against grid failure with Bloom-powered “microgrids,” like its 26 so far in California, which carried customers through last year’s blackouts.
Bloom has never generated a profit, despite at least $1.7 billion of invested capital, some of which was raised on the back of false statements.
Over its 19 years in business, Bloom has installed several thousand of its 15-ton boxes worldwide for big tech companies including Apple, AT&T and Paypal, which are willing to pay up to guarantee 24/7 power for data centers where the cost of downtime is nearly $9,000 per minute. A lot of its customers are in states with the highest power prices and big clean-energy subsidies, like New York, where Home Depot has installed them as backup generators “wherever they make economic sense,” says the chain’s U.S. energy chief, Craig D’Arcy. Bloom boxes have been operating nonstop at Caltech for over a decade, providing nearly 30% of the power to its Pasadena campus. “Having stable power is very important to scientists,” says Caltech facilities director Jim Cowell. “The grid has been disintermediated.”