Asim Hussain, vice president of commercial strategy and customer experience at Bloom Energy, took time out during Microgrid 2020 Global to chat with Elisa Wood, editor-in-chief of Microgrid Knowledge. They discussed Bloom Energy, the evolution of the company, the technology, and special ways that this company — and microgrids — are serving society today.
Launching into the discussion, the pair highlighted the evolution of Bloom Energy as a company as well as fuel cell technology.
Hussain explained that Bloom specializes in solid oxide fuel cell technology. He said the company makes a stationary energy system that inputs hydrocarbon fuel — typically natural gas, but it can also accommodate biogas — and then converts that into electricity at high efficiencies using an electrochemical reaction.
He simplified the concept using the example of cellular respiration.
“We breathe in air, and we get hydrocarbons from our food, but we don’t combust, so we’re mimicking the most natural reaction and doing that at a very high efficiency, such that we are a) not polluting the air with our system in any way when it is functioning, and b) reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to that efficiency,” he said.
Bloom Energy first brought its technology to market in the early 2010 time frame. In fact, Hussain was the first product manager on the microgrid product that Bloom produced and deployed in 2011.
Now, they have well over 90 microgrids deployed across the US, Japan and India, and they are also starting some large-scale deployments in South Korea.
And although Hussain said the Bloom team was excited about the early products, consumer sentiment around reliability at the time was less enthusiastic than it is now. As he put it, consumers thought that “the grid is good enough.”
So, Bloom Energy began by providing specialized microgrid deployments to clients mostly in the data center and manufacturing industries, as well as those “who had a very high sensitivity for both power quality and reliability.”
But over the past two years, this grid-focused sentiment has changed dramatically, given the rise in climate-related disasters, including rampant wildfires and hurricanes, according to Hussain.
“Where they are now facing potentially a multiday outage situation, we’re just seeing a much greater level of interest, as well as speed of deployment in microgrids,” Hussain said.
In fact, over two-thirdsd of the more than 90 microgrids the company has deployed were launched in the last two years, “and that ramp is accelerating significantly,” Hussain said.
Some of this shift is due to changes in technology and fuel.
Bloom Energy, specifically, has been working on growing energy density so the company can deploy more systems in less space, as well as reduce greenhouse gases and address the challenge of shifting to zero carbon to comply with state and international mandates and drivers.
“At Bloom, we’ve always had this objective of clean, reliable and affordable power for everyone involved, and part of that is having the flexibility to use renewable fuels,” Hussain said.
The company uses biogas at a number of its sites, making these facilities zero carbon, and it is looking at hydrogen as a fuel option.
“The really cool part of our fuel cell is it actually converts the methane into hydrogen on the anode side of the fuel cell before the reaction happens,” he explained. “So, we can actually take hydrogen today into our system, so as natural gas companies start to blend in hydrogen from excess renewable generation — for example, into the natural gas infrastructure — our systems will be able to handle that seamlessly.”
The company produces systems that can handle a blend of hydrogen and natural gas, and it has announced it will be deploying a 100% hydrogen-based system in South Korea.
“And, we expect to then have a portfolio of products that can actually utilize hydrogen as it becomes available to produce 100% renewable power,” Hussain added.
What Hussain is most excited about with this technology is “the benefit of zero carbon, but for the first time you are going to get the benefit of zero carbon in a 24/7 resource,” as opposed to solar, which is zero carbon but can be a challenge with intermittency and space requirements so it often needs to be combined with energy storage.
Wood also asked Hussain about projects the company has been involved with which address energy equity and social justice in energy.
He offered a few examples of projects Bloom Energy has been directly involved in:
During the worst of the 2019 and 2020 California wildfires, Bloom Energy had multiple microgrids deployed that helped keep retail stores, such as Home Depot, and grocery stores open for struggling communities with widespread power outages.
Bloom Energy also recently deployed a microgrid at the Marcus Garvey Apartments, a low-income housing development in Brooklyn, N.Y., which involved a combination of fuel cells and energy storage on-site. Instead of building a new substation, the customer received a rebate from the utility — a unique approach.
In Hartford, Connecticut, Bloom Energy deployed a microgrid for a local library, gas station and school, which, most of the time, just works to serve those entities. But, during an emergency, the microgrid can island, stay on and make sure that the gas station is powered and the emergency shelters at the library and school are powered for the community as well.
These are just a few examples of what Hussain sees as utilities, regulators and technology providers working together.
“I think it’s a matter of stepping up with some more creative structures and making those more the norm,” he said.