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Bloomors: Bloom Energy Rumors

Eric Wesoff: May 30, 2009, 5:13 PM

After more than seven years and more than $200 million of VC funding, Bloom Energy remains steadfastly non-communicative about its technology, product and business plan. The company ostensibly builds 5-kilowatt SOFCs (Solid Oxide Fuel Cells) or “Bloom Boxes” that can power a residence or business. The fuel cells are powered by methanol or ethanol which, when I last checked, was still a hydrocarbon product, albeit producing less emissions than, for example, a diesel generator.

It is said to be venture firm KPCB’s first greentech investment.

Every few weeks I receive a semi-credible tidbit about the company, which, in an attempt at journalistic integrity, I try to verify with the marketing folks at Bloom. This has turned into a sort of ritualized dance between myself and Stu Aaron, Bloom’s VP of Marketing and Product Development.

Over the last few months I’ve asked Stu about:

  • News of an alleged $150 million dollar funding round and $1.45 billion valuation
  • Rumors of an enormous government contract and a multi-million dollar order backlog from Coca-Cola and FedEx
  • Why they’re using Advanced Equities to help them raise their next round
  • The questionable fund-raising tactics used by one of their investors, Northgate Capital

I send a polite email with an inquiry and Mr. Aaron returns a polite, slightly weary and bemused response, saying, “No comment.” So, none of the above scuttlebutt is either confirmed or denied by Bloom.

I have even gone so far to inflict stress positions upon the Bloom Energy process engineers in my yoga class at Planet Granite in Sunnyvale. But these folks are well trained and have not divulged their fuel-cell intelligence.

Daniel Englander, one of our intrepid analysts found this entry on the California Solar Initiative website – clearly indicating a 25-kilowatt grid-tied fuel-cell installation somewhere in California:

  • Bloom Energy Corp
  • INV-500
  • 25-kilowatt 480 Vac Three Phase Utility-Interactive Inverter for Fuel Cell
  • 25kW
  • 93.5%
  • Added 3/31/09

And I was able to find this test data on the inverter being used in this installation which simply characterizes a 25-kilowatt DC-to-AC inverter.

So, armed with some facts for a change, I asked Stu Aaron at Bloom to give me some background on the installation and in this instance, he surprisingly responsed, “No comment.”   We’ll keep digging and hopefully Stu will weaken one of these days.

More fun facts:

According to Linked-In, Bloom has at least 150 employees.

And for some industry background, here’s a list of the profitable fuel-cell firms:


It’s Spray On Insulation for Engines From Ford

Michael Kanellos: May 29, 2009, 3:02 PM

James Baughman won the Inventor of the Year Award from the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation for the plasma transferred arc for spraying a thermal coating into aluminum engine blocks.

Aluminum engine blocks weigh substantially less than a standard engine, which improves gas mileage. Weight is effectively the third clean fuel in automotive, akin to batteries and biofuels. Bright Automotive and Aptera, for example, are adopting new materials to replace steel for various components in their cars. (Expect a bunch of material science startups and companies like Dow Chemical to tout materials for this market over the next few years.)

The spray eliminates a heavy cast-iron liner that is usually used in aluminum engines. Iron is used because of its low wear resistance. The spray cuts about six pounds out of the engine.



Kleiner Makes Another Green Car Investment: Who Is It?

Jeff St. John: May 28, 2009, 10:43 PM

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is investing in an unnamed electric or hybrid vehicle company that is aiming to produce cars at "the other end of the spectrum" from high-end hybrid vehicle startup Fisker Automotive.

Kleiner partner Trae Vassallo dropped the news Thursday at the Opportunities in Grid-Connected Mobility conference in San Francisco, but didn't provide much in the way of details.

"It's a car company," she said.

One thing's for sure, she said – the company won't be aiming at the luxury market, as is Fisker, which Kleiner has backed (see Fisker Raises $85M).

While Vassallo said that Fisker's high-end approach is one way to push electric vehicle innovation into the marketplace, the new investment is "really focused on driving volume to make a difference."

One would assume that Vassallo wasn't referring to Kleiner's well-publicized stake in Think North America, the U.S. subsidiary of Norwegian electric car maker Think established in March with backing from Kleiner and RockPort Capital Partners.

And Kleiner-backed ultracapacitor maker EEStor doesn't qualify as a car company, though it does promise its long-delayed technology will do great things for the electric automotive industry (see Sounds Like EEStor Has Delayed Again). Zenn Motors from Canada has an investment in EEStor so maybe there is a connection.

So which "car company" is it?

Well, let's see who falls into the low-price, high-volume category:

There's Reva, the India-based electric car maker that sells a lead-acid battery-powered car for about $9,000 and in January said it will bring a lithium-ion battery powered version to European markets some time this year (see Reva Plans to Launch L-Ion Battery-Powered Car in Europe).

Or perhaps Bright Automotive, the spinout of think tank Rocky Mountain Institute that wants to start mass-producing its lightweight hybrid fleet vehicles in 2012 (see Bright Auto Fleshes Out Manufacturing Plans). Bright is well connected so it has some attributes of a Kleiner type of company.

Or maybe Miles Electric Vehicles, the maker of low-speed neighborhood-only cars that wants to bring a highway-legal version to market by early next year (see Miles Electric to Show Off Its All-Electric Sedan June 3).

Or there's China's BYD Co., which became the first company in the world to mass-produce a plug-in hybrid vehicle with the launch of its F3DM in December, and plans to bring a version to the United Stated next year (see Showing Off Green Cars Amid Economic Gloom). Both BYD and Miles are making their cars in China, which can cut costs and time to market. 

The Myth of Electric Vehicle Subsidies

Fredrik Wass: May 28, 2009, 9:51 PM

Niche vehicles and utility fleets could be the tipping point for electric vehicles sales. But it won’t take subsidies, according to automakers.

“Why should we believe any of you? Who’s real and who’s not?” were the opening questions from Sherry Boschert to representatives from Ford, Zap, Phoenix Motorcars, Smith Electric Vehicles and Bright Automotive. They were all a part of a panel discussion on where they’re at when it comes to putting electric vehicles on the road, and making them competitive at the Opportunities in Grid-connected Mobility conference in San Francisco.

Boschert is a board member of Plug In America and the author of “Plug-in Hybrids, the cars that will recharge America.” Her first electric car was a GM EV1 that she was forced to give back to be destroyed, so one can understand her skepticism.

The automaker representatives looked a bit chocked but tried to answer her questions. Michael Brylawski, VP of Bright Automotive pointed out that times really has changed in just a few years.

“The environment today is different from before. When you have the capital, and you got the market, and consumers that want cost effective vehicles, the barriers are lower,” he said.

Michael Tinskey stressed that electric vehicles is now turning into an option for anyone, just not the green fanatics. “The only issue is price. If you really believe in green, performance or cost of ownership, you got that in the electric vehicles. It’s going to happen and it’s real,” he said.  Tinskey is Manager of sustainability and electrification deployment of Ford Motor Company.

Regarding the vehicle-to-grid aspect of electric drives, the automakers are not really there yet. At least according to the ones present at the conference. Ford has not really embraced the vehicle-to-grid technologies, but according to Tinsey, they do have features on their electric vehicles that allow using the cars for the purpose of power backup for homes.

Greg Starr, Chairman emeritus and director of Zap Car gave an example from one of his customers who uses his car to power his cabin, and then drives six miles to work, recharging it during the day.

It has been said that utility fleets are the market where electric cars will make their first big breakthrough. Michael Brylawski from Bright Automotive said that this is also a good environment for development, together with the utilities. But you shouldn’t see the electric vehicle market as a niche market.

“We don’t see the market as only an electric vehicle market. We see it as a vehicle market. It’s 100 percent economics. There’s a myth that electric vehicles need to be subsidized,” he said.

But the automakers still could use some help.

“Electric vehicles are going to be successful if the utilities are open to how to make it happen. It’s still a moving target,” said Bryon Bliss, VP, sales and marketing of Phoenix Motorcars.

“Large corporations need to know how these things work. We need help and support from the electric utilities. It’s not just about EV manufacturers doing this by themselves,” said Mark Aubry, Smith Electric Vehicles.

Valence Seeks DOE Stimulus Grant for Texas Battery Factory

Jeff St. John: May 28, 2009, 2:17 PM

Valence Technology (NSDQ: LVNC) on Thursday joined the ranks of battery makers seeking federal stimulus funding for a new factory in Texas.

The Austin, Texas-based maker of lithium iron magnesium phosphate batteries said it hopes to secure $225 million over three years from the Department of Energy's Electric Drive Vehicle Battery and Component Manufacturing Initiative.

Valence hopes to raise the remaining $359 million for the project through state and local taxes and other incentives. The factory could build about 660,000 battery packs per year with a storage capacity of more than a million kilowatt hours, and could be open as early as mid-2012, the company said.

Get in line. There's already a long line of companies hoping to get a piece of the $2 billion in the program for battery manufacturing grants. Those include Planar Energy Devices, General Electric, and earlier this week, Chrysler, which said it would seek $448 million from the program and another DOE stimulus program (see GE Aims at Energy Storage for Trains, Grid).

Valence is also seeking up to $608 million from another DOE stimulus program, the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Incentive Program. That program has $25 billion available, and companies seeking funding from it include lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems, which is seeking up to $1.8 billion, and a consortium of chemical and battery manufacturers seeking up to $1 billion for a commonly shared battery cell factory (see A123 Lands $100M in Tax Credits and Will The U.S. Move From Arab Oil Dependence to Asian Battery Dependence?)

Valence has so far taken a slightly different tack than those others, concentrating on making batteries for electric buses and commercial vehicles at first and then shifting into the car market (see Valence: Electric Buses and Trucks First, Cars Later). Founded in 1989, it has spent most of its time making batteries for computers.

Energy Efficient Computer Maker SiCortex Shuts Its Doors

Michael Kanellos: May 28, 2009, 12:42 PM

SiCortex, which wanted to sell energy efficient high performance computers to scientists, financial modelers and other big time users, has called it quits, according to HPC Wire. Most of the employees have been laid off and the company is trying to figure out how to sell its assets. More from HPC:

"According to the source, the course of action was initiated when one of the five venture capital firms behind SiCortex pulled out because of a lack of available funds. The other four then followed suit. The five firms that had funded SiCortex were Chevron Technology Ventures, Flagship Ventures, JK&B Capital, Polaris Venture Partners, and Prism VentureWorks. They had previously provided SiCortex with $42 million in funding, most recently in a Series B round in 2006."

A number of companies have recently radically altered their business plans or shut down. Some of the more noteworthy:

  • Optisolar, which had raised $322 million before selling off most of its remaining assets to First Solar.
  • SVSolar, which banked on the continuing rise in silicon prices.

The strange, and a little scary, part of SiCortex's demise is that it fits the profile of the kind of companies investors say they want: low-capital intensity companies that don't need factories that are aiming at reducing power consumption. The ones listed above all had factories.

On the other hand, I covered servers for years and can tell you that it's a tough place for any startup to survive. Back in the early 2000s, several companies came out of the woodwork touting blade servers. They pretty much all went away. IBM and HP just came out with blades of their own.

So this may not be a total commentary on the green industry.


Here Comes the Electric Rental Car

Michael Kanellos: May 27, 2009, 8:04 PM

Nissan has struck again. The company has signed a deal with Europcar that will lead to electric rental cars by 2010.

Under the deal, Europcar will offer electric vehicles in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.  

Nissan is going to first market its all-electric to commercial businesses and consumers in the U.S. and Japan staring in late 2010. It has already signed deals in various places in those countries for charging stations. The car is expected to cost between $22,000 and $33,000 before the $7,500 federal tax credit, which is very cheap for an electric car. The plan is to mass market the car to the rest of the world by 2012. The rental plan, thus, gives Nissan the ability to seed the market.

Both Nissan and Ford plan to come out with all-electric that year, although Ford will initially target only businesses. General Motors will also come out with the Volt, its plug in hybrid. How all these cars operate will be the big automotive question of the decade. Nissan's car only goes 100 miles on a charge, not optimal for rental situations, but it can also be charged from a plug. I drove a prototype. It's quite fun. Nissan developed the battery in conjunction with NEC.