AT&T is more than doubling the amount of energy it sources from fuel cells, and is now Blooom Energy's biggest corporate customer.
After signing a contract for 7.5 megawatts (MW) last year, it has signed on for another 9.6 MW, bringing AT&T's fuel cell capacity to 17.1 MW.
AT&T is taking advantage of Bloom Energy's service model, Bloom Electrons, which is similar to solar leasing programs. Customers pay for the electricity through a power purchase agreement, but not for the technology itself. Bloom owns the equipment and acts like a utility, giving customers more predictable rates than energy from traditional sources.
"We have high-tech centers that run around the clock, and the Bloom Boxes have worked perfectly," John Schinter, AT&T's director of energy, told Marin Independent Journal. "We haven't had any outages, and this allows us to have on-site generation with high reliability."
A major advantage of fuel cells is the ability to provide baseload power. Unlike intermittent solar and wind, they run around the clock.
"A key differentiator for fuel cells compared to other forms of alternative power is that fuel cell electricity production is virtually constant," John Schinter, AT&T's Senior Energy Director, told Marin. "They provide steady recurring electricity production at a relatively predictable cost, replacing the traditional electricity bill, which can be volatile."
Bloom's solid oxide fuel cell technology- the "Bloom Box" - converts fuel to electricity using an electrochemical reaction, rather than combustion. The emissions produced depend on the fuel source used - it can run on anything from natural gas to methane, hydrogen to biogas.
AT&T already has fuel cells 11 sites in California, including some of its data centers. After the new installations, 28 AT&T sites in California and Connecticut will be using Bloom fuel cells for at least some of their electricity needs.
AT&T is also using nearly 3.9 MW of solar at its sites, and it is working with the Environmental Defense Fund and Rocky Mountain Institute on energy efficiency projects that it plans to scale across its operations - 65,000 facilities in more than 60 countries.
The company has already identified and completed 8,700 energy efficiency projects that saved $86 million a year for the past two years, they say.
The fuel cell industry had its most successful year ever in 2011, with about 100 MW of capacity shipped. Analysts predict shipments will grow 61% this year to 176 MW – across all applications. Large stationary cells like the ones AT&T is using are selling particularly well in South Korea and North America.
A growing number of US businesses are turning to fuel cells to decrease dependence on the grid or reduce power costs.
Another high visibility Bloom Energy customer is eBay, which is powering a new data center completely using its fuel cells. Other customers include Owens Corning, Urban Outfitters, Google, Wal-Mart, Staples and Coca-Cola. Apple plans to use Bloom fuel cells to partially power its massive new data center in North Carolina.
Last spring, Bloom announced it would build a second manufacturing plant, this one in Delaware, after quadrupling capacity at its California plant and hiring 1000 more people.
Other leading fuel cell players include UTC Power, which recently installed six of its Power PureCell systems at CBS to power video production studios in Southern California.
FuelCell Energy is finding success with utility companies.
For now, Bloom's fuel cells run mostly on natural gas and that's causing it some trouble in Delaware, where it plans to sell energy to the local utility, Delmarva Power. In a suit filed in federal court, FuelCell Energy argues the state tweaked its law to allow Delmarva count natural gas as "renewable energy" in its Renewable Portfolio Standard, unfairly discriminating against competitors.