Since 2011, Bloom Energy, the fuel cell startup with more than a billion dollars in venture capital, has been promising to move beyond simply selling its Bloom Energy Servers, and into financing their installation under leasing and power-purchase agreement structures.
On Tuesday, Bloom announced a new deep-pocketed partner for its so-called “Bloom Electrons” leasing program. That’s Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which has made a “multi-million-dollar commitment” to finance two California projects, one at the TaylorMade-Adidas Golf Company factory in Carlsbad, and the other at Anaheim’s Honda Center, where the Anaheim Ducks play hockey.
Bloom and BofA didn’t disclose any more details about the projects, or specify whether the projects were part of a larger commitment from BofA Merrill's Global Vendor Finance division. The deal is part of Bank of America's $50 billion environmental business initiative, which “delivers lending, equipment finance, capital markets and advisory activities, and carbon markets finance” to customers around the world, according to Tuesday’s press release.
Bloom Electrons seeks to take away the need for an upfront capital investment from customers that want fuel-cell-generated electricity, by setting up an arrangement in which customers agree to buy their power at a set price for a period of time, without taking ownership of the power source.
Bloom, in turn, works with its third-party-financing partners to turn that payment stream into a long-term payback on the investment. As the official owners of the Bloom Boxes, the third party also gets to receive the various incentives available, such as carbon emissions reduction credits, clean energy subsidies, on-site power generation incentives, and the like.
Bloom announced several customers of its financing business when it was launched in January 2011, including the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Becton, Dickinson and Co., and Kaiser Permanente, which announced plans to order 4 megawatts of fuel cells under the program. Since then, it has added a few new customers under its leasing program, including AT&T, which became Bloom’s biggest customer last year by expanding its Bloom fuel cell orders to a combined 17.1 megawatts.
Bloom’s joint venture with Japan’s SoftBank announced last month also appears to be built around the Bloom Electrons model. The partners said they would each invest $10 million in the venture, with plans to sell fuel-cell-generated electricity to Japanese companies.
But Bloom has also seen some of its third-party financing deals fall apart. As Eric Wesoff reported in May, Bloom’s proposed 400-kilowatt installation with Santa Clara California's Valley's Transportation Authority ended up on the rocks, after third-party-financing partner AEDG pulled out because the project’s “financial structure was not achievable due to insufficient financial return for the third-party capital investor."
Bloom has aimed for reaching profitability this year, and has also been reported to be considering an IPO in the coming months. But it’s also faced a lot of criticism for its reliance on subsidy programs to support green energy sources to make its systems pencil out against other alternative sources, as well as to finance the construction of its Delaware manufacturing facility.
It remains to be seen whether the BofA Merrill Lynch partnership leads to a larger book of business for Bloom Electrons, or remains a one-shot deal. Certainly we've seen third-party financing models transform the solar industry, but other attempts to use similar models in other industries, such as energy efficiency, haven't yet taken off.