Bloom “Box”: Reverse Engineering the Economics

Last July Bloom Energy announced the placement of a 200 kW “Energy Server” (Bloom’s preferred language for “generator”) at Keio University in Japan, another at a large Softbank building in Fukuoka (Softbank is a major Japanese mobile phone service provider), as well as the creation of a 50/50 joint venture with Softbank to establish Bloom Energy Japan, Ltd.  These announcements were all part of the steady drumbeat of Bloom unit installations.  About the same time, however, Bloom issued a white paper where the President of Bloom Energy Japan, Miwa Shigerumotu, provided some insight into their pricing structure.  Below is a picture of the Bloom installation at the Softbank building.


Source: Bloom Energy Japan, Ltd.

As with other installations, Bloom is selling the product of the product, rather than just a piece of equipment.  The customers receive full output of the units with no upfront costs, paying a fixed rate of 25 yen/kWh, or about USD 0.21/kWh.  This rate is fixed at 10 years, with no fuel adjustment clauses.  In the white paper Mr. Miwa acknowledges that 25 yen is high relative to current prices, but goes on to say that the days of predictable electricity prices are over.  From April 2010 to April 2014, electricity prices in Japan rose an average of 10% annually.  He argues that paying a premium of about 5 yen now will be more than balanced out longer term when compared with the volatile and escalating conventional electricity cost.  His bottom line: a Bloom Energy Server provides price hedging and risk mitigation.

Fair enough, but is Bloom likely making money here or just initiating a loss leader program to pave the way for future sales?  We can get a very approximate sense of the implied cost of the unit with some reverse economic calculations.

The most significant variable cost to Bloom is fuel price.  The Bloom units are running on liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is not an inexpensive commodity in Japan.  The chart below gives some perspective to Japanese LNG pricing relative to the US and UK (Blue is US Henry Hub; Green is the UK and Red is Japan).  Last winter Japan LNG was at about $19/MM Btu.

Rice Univ

Source: National Gas Price in Asia, Rice University

The figure above overlays the timing of the Fukushima disaster and the closure of the Japanese nuclear fleet, which clearly had a major impact on price (and on the price increases noted above by Mr. Miwa).  Longer term, however, most analysts do not foresee a return to UK- or US-like pricing in Japan.   The Economist forecasts a decline in Japanese LNG price over time.


Whereas the IMF foresees a relatively constant price for the next several years.



Forecasting LNG prices in Japan is further complicated by the fact that, at least historically, Japanese LNG prices have been strongly correlated to world oil prices.  It remains to be seen if OPEC’s production announcement keeps oil prices stable in the short term but resulting in an increase when many now uncompetitive shale projects fail to survive, reducing supply.

For the purposes of this approximation, we’ll assume a fuel cost range for our Bloom units between $10 and $19/MM Btu.  We’ll also assume that Bloom internally financed the capital cost for these units at about a 2% interest rate.

Along with some other assumptions about O&M costs and taxes, the following break even maximum costs of capital as a function of fuel cost assumptions can be calculated.

Fuel Cost, $/MMBtu $/kW installed to achieve 10 year levelized cost of electricity equal to USD 0.21/kWh*
10 $9,000
15 $6,800
19 $5,000

When the first Bloom units were sold, industry estimates for their cost was on the order of $30,000 kW to $40,000/kW.  Perhaps 100 have been sold in the interim.  Given that starting point, it seems very unlikely that 100 units could result in economies of scale that would reduce cost by a factor of 5 or 6, as would be necessary for these two examples.

Even given all of the necessary caveats about the very approximate nature of the estimates and assumptions made above, loss leading is the market introduction strategy for Bloom in Japan.


*21 cents uses the current exchange rate – at the time the transaction was completed earlier this year the rate would have been nearly 25 cents US.  Perhaps this is why there was a report last month that the current rate is 28 yen/kWh.

Fuel Cells in the (Japanese) Home!

Many in the US are unaware of the fact that residential fuel cells are being routinely sold in Japan, especially in new home construction.  They are called ENE-FARM or “energy farms” that produce about 750 W of electricity with heat recovery.  The ENE-FARM fuel cells are all Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) technology, but solid oxide based units are en route.They are especially popular in homes with radiant floor heat.  24,000 units were sold in 2012; nearly 18,000 were sold in the first half of 2013.  At the end of 2013, about 50,000 units were in operation across the country.   Some of that more recent demand was fueled by Fukushima, but more on that later.  The national government has a goal of 1.4 million units by 2020 and 5.3 million by 2030. If the economics continue to achieve economies of scale, those goals will easily be exceeded.  Let me walk you through the promotional material used by a gas company near where I live.


Shizuoka Gas’s offering happens to be a Panasonic model that came out in 2013.  It consists of two boxes: the fuel cell, which includes the reformer, fuel cell stack and inverter; and the hot water unit which includes waste heat recovery, storage and a backup heat source.  The figure below shows the boxes and their control panels.



Fuel Cell

Electrical Output 750 kW
Exhaust heat output 1.08 kW
Electrical Efficiency (HHV/LHV) 35.2% / 39.0%
Heat Recovery Efficiency (HHV/LHV) 50.6% / 56.0%
Dimensions 1.85 m x 0.4 m x 0.4 m (6 ft x 1.3 ft x 1.3 ft)
Gas consumption (HHV / LHV) 2.1 kW/1.9 kW
Noise level 33 dB
Weight 95 kg (209 pounds)

Hot Water Storage Unit

Hot water temperature 60 o C (140 o F)
Storage Capacity 147 liters (39 gallons)
Dimensions 1.85 m x 0..56 m x 0.4 m (6 ft x 1.8 ft x 1.3 ft)
Weight 209 kg (460 pounds)

Hot Water Supply and Backup Unit

Heat source Instantaneous latent hear recovery
Hot water supply capacity 41.9 kW
Heating capacity 17.4 kW
Maximum gas consumption 64.8 kW
Dimensions 0.75 m x 0..48 m x 0.25 m (2.5 ft x 1.6 ft x 0.8 ft)
Weight 44 kg (97 pounds)
Noise 49 dB


Shizuoka Gas offers free maintenance for 60,000 hours or 10 years.

“Learning” Operation

This particular unit has the ability to analyze the demand pattern for hot water and electricity in the home, and then adjust its operation accordingly.  In the event that an unusual call for hot water occurs the backup water heater engages.  The picture below shows the demand for electricity at the top and the demand for hot water at the bottom.  The middle, pink section, shows the learned state of the water storage unit that anticipates need.

learning storage


Overall Efficiency

Everyone appreciates the rationale for a gas company to sell gas appliances, but it goes farther than simple demand creation.  Japan has no source of natural gas and relies on imported LNG instead. Combusting LNG for power generation yields the typical mid-thirties efficiencies.  Reforming LNG at the end user location however, gives much better results.  This is how Shizuoka Gas explains it:

Conventional Generation Efficiency

con eff

Adding the ENE-FARM to the Equation

fc eff


The suggested retail price for the system is around ¥2 million installed.  That’s about $20,000 – and about 2/3 the 2009 cost.  After subsidies, however, most consumers end up at or less than ¥1 million, or $10,000.  Annual savings are on the order of $600/year, so the simple payback is around 17 years.  Clearly this is still for environmentally conscious upscale consumers, but there are plenty of them in Japan.

Taking it all a step further..

SHIZGAS (as Shizuoka Gas likes to be called) is promoting a solar PV/fuel cell cogen system that clips the peak that the fuel cell can’t handle with an installation like this:



Here is the schematic of the house:




But they’ve gone much farther than a simple concept and built a 22 unit subdivision called Eco Life Square Mishima Kiyozumi.  It’s been completed since 2011.

4-11-2014 5-26-26 PM



Eleven years ago I was involved with a small fuel cell development company that was pursuing a residential fuel cell.  When I joined it became very clear that such a first product for the technology was a bridge too far, way too far, and we reoriented ourselves to a commercial scale unit, the first prototype of which was a naphtha fueled PEM unit that operated at a gas station to make hot water for car washes and provide backup power in the case of an emergency.  Ironically the Japanese firm that tested that unit, ENEOS, now offers an ENE-FARM system (not derived from our technology however).

Residential fuel cells for the US may still, indeed, be a bridge too far, but they are becoming well established in Japan, and in part, because of Fukushima.  Residential customers, albeit wealthy residential customers, want the ability to have more predictable electricity costs and the ability to self-generate, having experienced power shortages, outages and higher costs.  Also, unlike the US, there is a very strong ethic here to mitigate carbon.  While not carbon neutral, fuel cell efficiencies do mitigate LNG fired central generation emissions.

Japan’s Basic Energy Plan: Not All About Nukes

On February 26 the Japanese government published its latest Basic Energy Plan (BEP) for review and approval by the Cabinet.  Approval is expected, sometime this month.  The foreign headlines tended to focus almost exclusively on its statement that nuclear power remains an important source of energy.  This new BEP should have come as no surprise, given earlier commentary by the Abe government.  A more detailed read, however, reveals a far more nuanced story for nuclear as well as discussions of some interesting new developments.

Nuclear Impact

At the time of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011 Japan had 50 operational reactors ranging in age from 43 to 5 years.   They provided a little over 44 GW to the Japanese grid, or about 27% of total electricity generation.  Another 4 units were at some stage of construction, and another four units had been planned.  The then effective BEP had a goal of 50 % nuclear power generation by 2030.  All operational reactors have been shut down and construction halted on new units since the tsunami.

In September of 2012, the then current government issued a strategy statement that had as its goal the phase out of nuclear power by 2039.  This “statement” did not amend the current BEP prior to the Fukushima incident, and further, when the new government of the Liberal Democratic Party took over in late 2012, the Prime Minister, Mr. Abe, made it clear that it did not support a phase out.  The official BEPs, before and after the disaster, have never reflected a “no nukes” position.

There were changes to the text discussing nuclear, however.  Its introductory paragraph goes to great lengths to make clear the severity of Fukushima.  Roughly translated, it says:

“Nuclear energy policy must take into consideration an honest understanding and appraisal of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant accident.  The accident raised worldwide awareness of the risks of nuclear power.  Distrust and anxiety among the general public is stronger than ever against nuclear power and against the government and businesses who promote it. 140,000 people have had to be evacuated and there is international anxiety over water purity and pollution from the accident.  In addition to delays in information regarding the accident and delays in selecting final disposal sites and delays in the reprocessing plant feed this distrust. Interest in energy issues has become extremely high in the country and many want to eliminate nuclear power generation altogether. At a minimized scale, nuclear power is still necessary, but the government must address the public concerns.”

There is also an extensive section specific to the steps to be taken at Fukushima during its “30 to 40 year” decontamination and decommissioning.

Japan’s Problem

The following chart, which was provided at the end of this latest draft Plan, clearly illustrates Japan’s problem (click on image to enlarge).

JPN Load

The two bars to the right show the makeup of electricity supply in 2010 and 2012.  Halting nuclear power generation resulted in a near tripling of oil and a 25% increase in natural gas/LPG use.  These measures, especially oil consumption, have impacted Japan’s balance of payments, retail rates and greenhouse gas emissions.

Revised Overall Plan

Chapter 1, “Challenges to our energy supply and demand structure;” Chapter 2 “A new perspective on energy policy;” Chapter 4 “(R&D, strategic energy technology development;” and Chapter 5 “Deepen communication with all levels of civil society” were unchanged.  Chapter 3, discussing long term measures to address energy supply and demand, received considerable edits, as shown in the table below.  Section 4 of this chapter constitutes the full discussion of nuclear power.  (Text in blue remained the same; subheadings under unchanged sections are not shown for brevity.)


2/26/2014 Draft Table of Contents

Chapter 3 Long term, comprehensive and systematic measures to address energy supply and demand

  1. Promotion of a comprehensive policy for secure, stale and secure energy  resources
    1. Promotion of upstream advance and strengthen relationships with new resources supplying countries in North America, Russia, Africa, etc.
    2. Strengthening the foundations of resource procurement current environment
    3. Improvement of resource procurement conditions for energy cost reduction
    4. Promoting the development of domestic resources such as methane hydrates
    5. Strengthening promotion of recycling is essential to ensure a stable supply of mineral resources and reserves system, etc.
  2. Implement an energy-saving society through smart, flexible consumption
    1. Strengthening of energy conservation in each Ministry
    2. Use of demand response to promote the efficiency of energy supply
  3. Accelerate medium-to long-term renewable energy with the aim of self-reliance be introduced
    1. Strengthening of efforts to accelerate the introduction of wind power and geothermal
    2. Promote the use of renewable energy in the distributed energy system
    3. Role of feed-in tariffs
    4. Promotion of a variety of deployment with a focus on renewable thermal energy
    5. Promotion of renewable energy industry in Fukushima Center
  4. Rebuild nuclear energy policy
    1. Starting point of the nuclear policy–a sincere remorse Tokyo electric power Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station
    2. Fukushima rehabilitation and reconstruction measures
    3. Establishment of a stable business environment and continuous improvement in the safety of nuclear power
    4. Efforts to steadily promote measures without delay to the future
    5. Build trust relationship public , local governments , with the international community
  5. Improve the environment for the efficient use of fossil fuel
  6. Promotion of supply structural reforms to remove market barriers
  7. Strengthening and toughening of domestic energy supply networks
    1. Strengthen response to the crisis of supply disruptions from abroad by oil reserves, etc.
    2. Strengthen response to domestic crises.
  8. Changes to the secondary energy structure to contribute to the supply and global warming
  9. Growth strategy based on the generation of integrated energy companies through market integration and energy realization
  10. Comprehensive energy international cooperation development


The following are highlights from the new sections of Chapter 3.

Section 1

  • Invest in upstream development by Japanese companies through aggressive diplomacy on the part of the National Institute of Oil, Gas and Metals (JOGM) and provide loan guarantees through public and private sector cooperation.
  • Establish floating form LNG production storage and shipping facilities
  • Strategic investigation of mining shallow water hydrothermal vents for rare minerals in Sea of Okinawa
  • Apply for mining permits outside of Japan Economic Zone through the International Seabed authority, including rare earth minerals off Marcus Island and manganese nodules near Hawaii.
  • Commercialize methane hydrate production by 2018.
  • Assess 6,000 sq. km annually through 2018 for oil reserves.

Section 3

  • Speed up the environmental assessment and on the electrical business law regulatory science to promote more geothermal and wind power generation.
  • Embrace renewable energy in areas between transmission lines.
  • Promote the development of special purpose companies aiming for return on investment relating to transmission line maintenance.
  • In the newly established regional management promotion agency, adjust the frequency variations in wide-area systems to accommodate the increased use of renewable energy that cause fluctuations in the electric power system.
  • Absorb fluctuating renewable energy along with a large storage batteries and hydrogen activities.
  • Demonstrate large storage batteries for introduction demonstration to substations, etc. and with international standardization.
  • Through R&D seek to reduce large battery costs by half by 2020.
  • The increased use of offshore wind power is indispensable.
  • Seek to achieve world’s first  commercial floating offshore wind power unit and promote empirical research to being conducted off the coast of Nagasaki, as soon as 2018.
  • In the 17 months since their introduction in November 2012, feed in tariffs have increased renewable generation by 30%.

Section 4

  • Accelerate efforts to ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC).
  • Expand capability to store spent nuclear fuel; promote the use of MOX fuel and reprocessing.The text specifically calls for timely commissioning of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant and restart of the Monju sodium cooled fast reactor. Monju cost $200 million a year to maintain and has been subject to many shutdowns and safety violations since it began operation in 1994. While there may be begrudging public support for the restart of a few reactors most editorials question the need for generating more plutonium and want to see the Monju shuttered.


It’s really unfortunate that this and earlier drafts of the BEP have not been translated into English.  What I’ve done here is synthesize a number of translation routines and combined that with my own perspective.  Surely I’ve missed a great deal without a complete translation.  Regardless, it is clear that the summaries of this document in the world press did not do it justice and perhaps were tinged with a lot of optimism.  Relicensing of the idle reactors will not be simple and at best guess between 10 and 12 might make the grade.   In addition those that do survive the process will not be operating any time soon.  The Nuclear Regulatory Authority is reportedly bogged down in paperwork and still trying to work through a process that is not fully defined.  Recent editorials in the Asahi Shimbun and The Japan Times make it clear that public sentiment, except perhaps in and around Tokyo, is not entirely behind nuclear restart.  The BEP itself makes clear that local authorities will have a lot of influence on restart decisions.

In the meantime, the other portions of the BEP have catapulted Japan into a much more supportive climate for renewables and, it seems, especially with regard to smart grid, T&D automation and demand response.