His energy bill is $0.00
A New Jersey civil engineer powers his home with solar panels and hydrogen tanks. Can it work in the mainstream?
EAST AMWELL, N.J.
Mike Strizki lives in the nation's first solar-hydrogen house. The technology this civil engineer has been able to string together – solar panels, a hydrogen fuel cell, storage tanks, and a piece of equipment called an electrolyzer – provides electricity to his home year-round, even on the cloudiest of winter days.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Strizki's monthly utility bill is zero – he's off the power grid – and his system creates no carbon-dioxide emissions. Neither does the fuel-cell car parked in his garage, which runs off the hydrogen his system creates.
It sounds promising, even utopian: homemade, storable energy that doesn't contribute to global warming. But does Strizki's method – converting electricity generated from renewable sources into hydrogen – make sense for widespread adoption?
According to some renewable-energy experts, the answer is "no," at least not anytime soon. The system is too expensive, they say, and the process of creating hydrogen from clean sources is itself laced with inefficiency – the numbers just don't add up.
Strizki's response: "Nothing is as wildly expensive as destroying the whole planet."
Life free from the power grid
Strizki lives with his wife in a rural section of Central New Jersey. His 12-acre property is surrounded by trees and his gravel driveway leads to a winding country road. His 3,500-square-foot house has all the amenities, including a hot tub and a big-screen TV.
It was here, four years ago, that Strizki set out to do something that's never been done in this country – power his home completely through a combination of solar and hydrogen. "My motivation was, I saw what fossil fuels were doing to the environment," he says.
Strizki works for a company that installs solar panels. In previous jobs, he's helped integrate hydrogen fuel cells into cars, a boat, a fire truck, and an airplane. His latest project, the one involving his house, is an extension of that expertise.
The solar-hydrogen house took longer to complete than Strizki expected – a strict local zoning officer and the state permitting process caused delays, he says – but in October 2006, the system finally went online. The total cost, $500,000, was paid for in part with a $250,000 grant from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
This is how it works
On sunny days, solar panels on the roof of Strizki's detached garage generate more than enough electricity to power his home. The excess electricity powers a device inside the garage called an electrolyzer, which transforms a tank of water into its base elements – oxygen and hydrogen.
The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, while the hydrogen is stored in 10 1,000-gallon propane tanks on Strizki's property. In the winter, when the solar panels collect less energy than the home needs, that hydrogen is piped to an air-conditioner-size fuel cell, located just outside the garage, which generates electricity.
The final piece of the equation is "The New Jersey Genesis," a hydrogen fuel-cell car Strizki helped design and now maintains for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. He can fill up the Genesis with hydrogen from his electrolyzer and drive it pollution free.
Strizki understands that few people can afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for clean energy. Now that he's demonstrated his idea works, his goal is to make the system better and less expensive. (For example, the 10 propane tanks could be replaced by one high-pressure hydrogen tank buried underground.) With mass production, he believes he could get the price of the system, not including the solar panels, down to about $50,000. (A new solar panel system can cost as much as $80,000, Strizki says, but some states, including New Jersey, have offered rebates that cover up to 70 percent of the cost.) Strizki is seeking government grants and private donors for funding, and he's started a company, Renewable Energy International, which he hopes will one day market his product. He says he's already heard from potential customers: "We've been called by some A-list Hollywood types interested in powering their islands."