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How solid oxide fuel cells provide reliable power and drive decarbonization

4 minute read

Economy-wide electrification is seen by many as the foundation for a decarbonized future. And there are plenty of signs that supportive policies and improving economics are driving a long-term shift towards building, transportation, and industrial electrification. For example, about 70% of new car sales in the US in the first quarter of 2023 were EVs and the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that the consumption of electricity from transportation could grow from 12 billion kilowatt-hours in 2021 to 145 billion kilowatt-hours by 2050.

But there is a large challenge that needs to be solved as individual households, big companies, and the economy overall increasingly rely on electricity. Even as its importance increases, the reliability of the grid is decreasing – and the problem is likely to get worse before it improves. For example, since 2013 grid interruptions in the US have increased by 105% and between 2011 and 2021 there were 64% more major power outages (meaning the outage impacted more than 50,000 customers) than the previous decade.

An aging grid and a utility workforce reaching retirement contribute to grid outages and interruptions. So, too, does the increasing frequency and severity of climate change-driven extreme weather. In the 1980s, there was an average of about three extreme weather events resulting in over $1 billion in damages each year, based on analysis by Wood Mackenzie. Over the past decade, that number increased to over 15 billion-dollar weather events per year. According to another analysis, power outages due to hurricanes, tornados, and other extreme weather have doubled over the past two decades, and there’s no reason to believe the trend towards increasingly severe weather will subside anytime soon.

The growing frequency of power outages has a big impact on the economy. The . Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that power outages cost the economy $150 billion each year. Individual industries, like manufacturing and data center operators, suffer financial losses of between $1 million and $5 million per hour of downtime. An outage at Facebook (now Meta) in 2019 reportedly cost the company $90 million. According to Wood Mackenzie, the nine . states with the largest data center markets are particularly susceptible to grid outages. While the total number of grid outages is increasingly modestly, the duration of the outages is rising significantly, by about 14 minutes each year.

A reliability solution for the immediate and long-term

Clearly, power interruptions and outages are a major problem for both industrial electricity customers and the utilities that serve them. Many manufacturers, for example, are simultaneously investigating electrification technologies to lower greenhouse gas emissions to meet aggressive ESG goals while also worrying about potentially costly losses of grid power.

Utilities are also struggling to expand grid infrastructure quickly and strategically to reliably meet the current and future electricity demands of all customers, but especially large industrial customers. For example, utilities risk losing data center customers (and not attracting new customers) along with the revenue they generate because building out the grid capacity needed to reliably serve them takes too long.

But innovative alternatives have emerged. For example, Bloom Energy’s Series 10 provides a versatile solution that delivers both immediate and long-term power certainty to a wide range of industrial energy users – from data centers to chemical, automotive, and plastics manufacturers – while also accelerating progress towards ambitious ESG goals.

Series 10 can provide 10 megawatts of guaranteed, uninterrupted power with no upfront or ongoing maintenance costs over a five-year term at a flat rate as low as 9.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. The foundation of the Series 10 solution is the Bloom Energy Server. The Bloom Energy Server, utilizes solid oxide fuel cells, which convert natural gas, renewable natural gas, or hydrogen into electricity without the need for combustion. Comprised of an electrolyte, a cathode, and an anode, solid oxide fuel cells combine air and fuel to drive a continuous electrochemical process that produces a reliable supply of electricity.

Because there is no need for combustion to produce electricity, there are virtually no emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx),sulfur oxides (SOx), or particulate matter. Depending on the choice of fuel, Series 10 can either eliminate or significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For industrial customers, deploying an always-on fuel cell with little or no greenhouse gas emissions can accelerate progress towards decarbonization goals without introducing electricity reliability risks. But it also can position companies to take advantage of rapid advances in the performance and scale of low and zero-carbon fuels.

One of the major hurdles facing companies balancing decarbonization and reliability priorities is the slow speed of grid infrastructure and on-site renewables and energy storage projects. Series 10, by contrast, can be shipped in as few as 50 days after a contract is signed and Bloom handles any necessary design and permitting requirements and collaboration with both the customer and any vendors they use for construction.

It's also important to note that Series 10 can align with and complement other reliability and decarbonization initiatives. For example, interest in microgrids by manufacturers and other industrial companies is rising and driven by the need to reduce the risk of power outages and interruptions as well as the need to decarbonize. Bloom Energy’s Series 10 solution is the ideal technology foundation for a microgrid that can also include solar, energy storage, and other distributed energy resources (DER).

Businesses shouldn’t have to choose between reliable power and making decarbonization progress. Bloom Energy’s Series 10 delivers both.