Solar-Hydrogen House Still a Work in Progress
By Jared Flesher
November 10, 2008
EAST AMWELL TOWNSHIP, N.J. In October 2006, after engineer Mike
Strizki transformed his New Jersey home into the nations first zero-
emissions, totally sustainable solar/hydrogen house, a wave of media
attention followed, including a feature story in The New York Times
Magazine. At the time, Mr. Strizki predicted his prototype system
would start to make a lot more economic sense as the cost to produce
it dropped and energy prices rose. Plus, he said, it could help save
the world from global warming.
Two years later, Mr. Strizkis company, Renewable Energy
International, has yet to install a single new system, and it hasnt
secured any significant source of investor funding. But R.E.I. does
have its first customers lined up, including a homeowner in the Cayman
Islands, and Mr. Strizki remains unreservedly optimistic.
Two years from now, Im going to be installing these things all over
the world, he said. Im going to be licensing out franchises. And
Im going to be working on improvements to the units every day.
The prototype system now installed on Mr. Strizkis 3,000-square-foot
home works by converting energy gathered by solar panels into hydrogen
gas, which is stored in propane tanks in his backyard. When the solar
panels cant meet the energy needs of his house and his backup
batteries are low say on a cloudy day in the middle of the winter
the hydrogen fills the void by powering a hydrogen fuel cell.
The hydrogen can also be used to power a zero-emissions fuel cell car.
The catch? His prototype cost $00,000 to build.
Now, however, Mr. Strizki says version 2.0 of his system is almost
ready and that it is cheaper, smaller, and more reliable. He is
assembling it piece by piece in his large garage with the goal of
having it shipped to his customer on Grand Cayman by mid-December. One
improvement is a new fuel cell thats easier to maintain. The 10
propane tanks he used in the prototype have been replaced by just one
high-pressure tank to be buried underground. And many of the
components he is using are plug-and-play, meaning fixing a
malfunctioning unit can be as simple as mailing a new part to the
homeowner and having them slide it into place.
I dont build solar panels and I dont build fuel cells, Mr. Stri=
said. What I do build is energy storage systems that are turnkey.
Last year, Mr. Strizki told reporters he would be able to build his
next solar/hydrogen system for a dramatically lower cost about
$00,000. But the system shipping to the Cayman Islands, which will
power a similarly 3,000 square-foot home, will actually cost about
$30,000, according to Mr. Strizki.
Mr. Strizkis third system, to be installed on a 6,000-square-foot
home being built in nearby Hopewell, N.J, will cost about $30,000.
Chris Kneppers, the owner of that home-to-be, said he knows he is
paying a premium for energy independence, but that for him its not
really about cost efficiency. At the end of the day, I could look at
myself in the mirror, and look my children in the eyes, and say, Ive
done my part, Mr. Kneppers said.
Although Mr. Strizkis system could potentially be installed just
about anywhere, he thinks his niche market will be found in places
that have a special need or economic incentive to store renewable
energy including islands, where energy costs are typically high and
hurricanes often disrupt the grid; areas of the world that have no
power grid; and places where its essential to have reliable backup
power systems and the ability to create fuel on-site.
Still, there are factors that may work against Mr. Strizkis system
being embraced as a more mainstream energy solution.
One drawback is the systems inefficiency. In capturing solar energy,
storing it as hydrogen, and then converting into electricity, about
50% of the potential power is lost. For a homeowner in the Northeast
with solar panels on the roof and a connection to the power grid, that
means that more carbon emissions would likely be displaced overall by
sending surplus solar energy out to the power grid to be used by
others, rather than storing it at home as hydrogen.
This argument does not dissuade Mr. Strizki. He sees his system as the
one best tailored for a future in which energy generation is clean and
decentralized. Im more committed than ever to doing this because
this is the Holy Grail, he said. This is the ultimate solution. This
is curing the disease not treating it.