Huge power company Exelon to finance Bloom Energy fuel cell projects

Bloom Energy fuel cells at an eBay data center. Image courtesy of Bloom Energy.

Fuel cell maker Bloom Energy announced an important financing deal early Tuesday morning with one of the largest power companies in the U.S. Exelon plans to fund the deployment of 21 MW worth of Bloom Energy fuel cells — which is over 100 individual fuel cell units — for two customers across 75 commercial locations. While the deal isn’t that large in terms of units, it’s interesting because it shows how Bloom Energy’s fuel cells are becoming more bankable and more compelling to power companies interested in a distributed clean power option.

Fuel cells are large devices that combine a fuel (usually natural gas or biogas) with oxygen and through a chemical reaction create electricity; they’re kind of like electricity-generating batteries. Bloom Energy is a 12-year-old company that has raised over $1.1 billion from venture capitalists and investors like Kleiner Perkins, NEA, DAG Ventures, GSV Capital and Credit Suisse.

Bloom Energy's fuel cells, image courtesy of Bloom Energy.

Bloom Energy’s fuel cells, image courtesy of Bloom Energy.

One of the customers in the new Elexon financing program is AT&T, which became an early Bloom Energy customer back in the summer of 2011 and has been boosting its projects ever since. AT&T is using fuel cells to power administration offices, data centers and facilities that house network equipment. Bloom Energy isn’t disclosing the name of the other customer.

The 21 MW worth of projects will be deployed over the coming year. Bloom Energy also isn’t disclosing the total amount of the financing from Exelon, or more details on the type of return Exelon is getting.

Exelon is putting up financing for Bloom Energy’s electrons-as-a-service program, which it launched in early 2011. Through this program, customers like AT&T buy the power from the fuel cells instead of buying the fuel cells themselves. The financing is a tax equity investment and the term of the deal is for 15 years.

Bloom Energy fuel cells at Apple's data center. Image courtesy of Gigaom.

Bloom Energy fuel cells at Apple’s data center. Image courtesy of Gigaom.

The Bloom Energy electrons program is similar to the model under which banks and companies have been putting money into solar power projects over the years — they call these deals power purchase agreements, or PPAs. Companies like SolarCity and SunEdison have made a lot of money over the years putting together these financing deals, and selling solar power to home and business owners over a 15 to 20 year period.

New business models, like Bloom Energy’s electrons as a service, are helping deploy the next generation of distributed clean power like solar panels and fuel cells. Energy efficiency companies (like firms that do energy audits and weatherization) are trying to use this same model to deploy energy efficiency tools.

Katie Fehrenbacher interviewing Bloom Energy exec Asim Hussain. Image courtesy of Gigaom.

Katie Fehrenbacher interviewing Bloom Energy exec Asim Hussain. Image courtesy of Gigaom.

This program is the first time that a large utility is funding Bloom Energy’s electron program — it’s also the largest deployment out of the electron program for commercial use. Banks and other financiers have invested in this program before. Bloom Energy also sells the fuel cells upfront, as well as through a lease program. Bloom Energy is looking to make its technology as accessible as possible to customers.

As of the end of 2013, Bloom Energy had built out 100 MW worth of fuel cells across the U.S. Bloom Energy has been rumored to file for an IPO for years, and many are hoping 2014 is the year.

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