Fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy to hire 900 in Del. (Update)

California-based Bloom Energy says it plans to hire 350 construction workers this year, and 900 permanent workers by 2012, for a new factory at the former Chrysler auto factory in Newark, Delaware, which will produce Bloom Box-brand "fuel cells" to make electricity from natural gas.

Bloom has already built 150 of the 100-kilowatt units at its plants near Sunnyvale, Calif., and installed them at locations operated by Wal-Mart, Federal Express, Safeway, and other big companies in California, and plans to deliver 300 more this year, chief financial officer Bill Kurtz, a Mays Landing native, told me. It takes two to three units to power a Wal-Mart.

"Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and FedEx want us to serve their operations on the East Coast," and Delaware is convenient to those locations, Kurtz told me.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell endorsed Bloom's proposal, which depends on an $11.25 million state-funded grant, plus a "conditional incentive" of $3.25 million for an additional 600 jobs at suppliers to the Bloom plant. The state's Delaware Economic Development Office has also agreed to contribute up to $1.5 million of the first $50 million Bloom spends building its facility. 

Markell's state Secretary of the Energy and Environment, Collin O'Mara, a former San Jose, Calif. city official, pitched the state to Bloom on a visit to Silicon Valley companies early last year, Delaware economic development chief Alan Levin told me. "At first they said they had no interest in coming to Delaware. Nine months later they called and said 'We are thinking about an East Coast strategy. They've visited here 15 times. And we've been out there." 

Bloom is backed by the well-funded Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, and counts Kleiner boss John Doerr and ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell on its board. Delaware is also home to the planned East Coast factory of  Fisker Motors, the government-financed electric-car maker that has promised to start making cars at the ex-General Motors plant near Wilmington.

Bloom cells will also power a 30 megawatt plant at Delmarva Power's New Castle, Del. substation that will enable the power utility to reduce emissions as demanded by federal guidelines, for an average surcharge of 70 cents per residential customer per month, pending state legislative approval.

Bloom doesn't burn gas but uses a ceramic-based chemical catalyst to separate electrons from the hydrogen and carbon in natural gas. The process is more expensive than burning, but creates no air emissions and is attractive to businesses that need to lower emissions under government guidelines, chief financial officer Bill Kurtz, a Mays Landing native, told me. Bloom expects costs will fall as more units are installed and natural gas supplies are developed in Pennsylvania and other states.