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In a carefully orchestrated series of announcements this morning, hot fuel cell company Bloom Energy announced a new electricity service that allows customers to buy electricity produced by its Bloom Box fuel cells without having to buy any of the hardware.

It looks like Bloom’s attempt to expand its reach and offer more affordable options —  it has been criticized in the past for the roughly $800,000 price tag of its Bloom Boxes. Bloom also announced today a number of customers — some of them returning ones — who have signed up for its new Bloom Electrons service: Walmart, Coca-Cola, Staples, Kaiser Permanente, and a two-megawatt installation at the California Institute of Technology, where it is livestreaming its announcement today at 10 a.m. PT. It is also teaming with Southern California Gas to supply natural gas, which the boxes use to convert to electricity efficiently and nearly emissions-free.

The launch of the program answers whether Bloom would put out a more-affordable option for its fuel cell anytime soon, a question that has lingered since the Kleiner Perkins-backed company made a splash last year on a 60 Minutes segment. Customers like Adobe, Google and eBay spend between $700,000 and $800,000 for one Bloom Box, a fuel cell roughly the size of a parking space that Bloom claims can power up to 100 American homes. Each Bloom Box is filled with stacks of razor-thin discs each of which that, when infused with a source of fuel like natural gas, can put out enough electricity to power a light bulb, using technology CEO KR Sridhar initially developed at NASA. But Bloom has also said it would develop a cheaper, $3,000 version of the box that could power an individual home.

The Bloom Electrons program requires a 10-year contract, with customers paying only for the cost of electricity consumed, taking away the upfront capital costs and, Bloom says, saving them 20 percent on electricity bills.  The company will initially deploy 200 systems, or 20 megawatts’ worth of fuel cells.

Bloom teamed with Silicon Valley Bank and Credit Suisse on the financial aspects of the program, and partnered with Southern California Gas to supply the natural gas for its fuel cells.

Bloom Electrons feels reminiscent of solar leasing, a popular new model in which homeowners pay a monthly leasing fee and for solar power generated by panels leased to them by companies like Sungevity, SunRun and SolarCity, which offer cheap solar power without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars to install a solar system and lock in rates on 10- and 20-year contracts.

Bloom has raised $400 million from investors so far and has dangled the prospect of a 2011 before, and talked about smaller-scale fuel cells that would be cheaper but could potentially allow houses or entire neighborhoods to run completely off the grid.

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