06/28/2010 03:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Tis the Gift to Be Simple

One of the terrific things about my job is the chance to see cool things done -- sometimes for the first time, sometimes just in a new and different way. The striking thing about these learning moments is that I often end up thinking in a new way about some entirely different question -- there's something that contagious about creativity.

I've had the joy of watching wind turbines transform Sweetwater, Texas, from a dying West Texas ghost community into a thriving hub of innovation. I've visited the low-slung Richmond, California, factory where Model A Ford assembly lines gave way to the tank factory that made Rosie the Riveter a global icon during World War II. That same factory now makes solar panels to free the U.S. from a new set of Axis powers -- coal and oil. And I've marveled at how humble-seeming algae, properly coaxed, can industriously make fuel from today's sunlight, thereby sparing us the risks of having to harvest the energy left behind by fossil algae as oil deposits millions of years ago.

In Sunnyvale, CA, I took a tour of Bloom Energy. Bloom has launched upon the world a solid-oxide fuel cell, which is already making electricity for its first round of customers at about $0.10/kilowatt (which is below the market here in California). What's more, it's doing so with no more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions of a coal-fired power plant -- and with none of the deadly mercury, sulfur, and other health-threatening pollutants that are the curse of coal.

As I toured the plant, my first thought was how simple it all seemed. But let's be real. The heart of Bloom's technology is its Energy Server, which is (literally) based on rocket science. K. R. Sridhar, who runs the company, generated the original idea while working for NASA on a way to make Mars habitable. He eventually decided it was more important to keep the Earth habitable and began applying his scientific knowledge to the challenge of making electricity with the minimum environmental footprint.

Each fuel cell -- there are 2,000 stacked in a refrigerator-sized server -- is a two-layered block that's half the size of a deck of cards, with a wafer of zirconium-rich sand, a metal sleeve to channel fuel and oxygen, and two high-tech paint strips silk screened onto the wafer. It looks like an unappetizing ice-cream sandwich. Each cell generates enough electricity to power a 50-watt light bulb -- using natural gas, methanol, or any other volatile hydrocarbon (or even pure hydrogen).

This fuel-cell technology could make obsolete the need to back up grid power with batteries of generators -- a requirement for hospitals, data centers, public-safety facilities, and other facilities that can't afford a power outage. That 20 percent of America's energy consumers could be served more cheaply and cleanly with Bloom Energy Servers.

But that's only the beginning. As I learned more, it became clear to me that we should reconsider before building any more natural gas "peaker" plants in crowded urban areas. Peakers are located where the grid can't deliver enough power on a hot summer afternoon -- and where neighborhoods lack the political clout to keep them out. But a Bloom Energy fuel-cell array could provide power 24/7 -- thereby freeing up valuable capacity on the transmission grid. And it could do so with no pollution, no noise, and a much lower cost.

What about those old coal-fired power plants that justify their vampire-like existence by saying, "Hey, we keep the lights on"? Fuel cells are more reliable, vastly cleaner, and now either cheaper or on the verge of becoming so.

My thoughts turned to locomotives. Current locomotive technology requires three enormous drive sources -- a diesel engine to drive a huge generator that in turn powers electric motors. But a back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests that much better --
and cleaner -- locomotives could use fuel cells powered by natural gas directly driving the electric motor. That would eliminate most of the moving parts, most of the weight, and all of the need for imported oil to run our railroads.

Remarkably, as I toured the factory, I didn't have that usual layman's impression of high technology -- that what's happening is simply incomprehensible, with lots of complicated junctions and pathways. Even though the underlying science is indeed complex, what I saw happening in the Bloom Energy factory seemed both elegant and easy. It reminded me of an experience I had in elementary school. Although the underlying science that produced a radish 40 days after I planted one on a window sill was also very complex, what made it seem straightforward to me as a child (plant a radish, get a radish) was the simplicity of my own contribution (keep your radish watered and in the sun). What happens in the Sunnyvale factory seemed equally powerful, elegant, and easy in much the same way.

Now consider BP's Macondo disaster in the Gulf, where combining high technology with an extraordinarily complex human equation inevitably led to a catastrophic failure. Compare that to Bloom Energy, which also relies on complex science, but doesn't also require complex, perfect human behavior. Which one would you rather bet on?

As the old Shaker hymn says, "When we find ourselves in the place just right, 'twill be in the valley of love and delight." A quiet fuel cell in your neighborhood beats an old coal-fired clunker or a jet-engine-style natural-gas peaker plant anytime -- not to mention the larger menace of a nuke down the block, just waiting for something to go wrong.