Completely Off The Grid

on August 13, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Mike Strizki says he’s figured out how to store solar energy in a way that could provide the world with an infinite source of year-round, emissions-free power, but also says no one is listening to him.

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At his house in the woods of western New Jersey, the civil engineer turned green energy evangelist uses fuel cells to convert the power generated by about 150 solar panels so that it can be stored in 11 hydrogen tanks about 100 yards from the house.

For eight or nine months of the year, the photovoltaic cells mounted on Strizki’s workshop roof and scattered around his yard generate more than enough electricity for a full range of domestic appliances including energy-guzzlers like a hot tub and a big-screen TV in his white-sided suburban home.

For the winter months when there isn’t enough solar power for domestic needs, the house draws on electricity stored in hydrogen tanks, which he converts back to electricity with fuel cells.

The technology has allowed Strizki to live off the grid since 2006 without emitting an ounce of carbon or paying a penny to the local utility.

With the recent installation of more solar panels, Strizki now generates 21 kilowatts, or about twice as much power as he needs, and sells the extra to the power company, netting him about $25,000 a year.

A Dream No More

The so-called Hydrogen House, the only one of its kind in the US, is designed to demonstrate that hydrogen fuel-cell technology can work on a practical domestic level at a time when governments are urgently seeking increased energy security and lower carbon emissions to combat climate change.

“He has shown in a real-world application that hydrogen fuel cell technology can enhance the value of renewable fuels,” said Patrick Serfass, vice president of the Hydrogen Education Foundation, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that promotes hydrogen technologies.

Widespread replication of the technology could address pressing environmental and economic problems, but the Hydrogen House’s success is not being taken seriously by federal or state governments because, Strizki said, they are too invested in fossil fuels.

Government Support Fades

Greg Reinert, a spokesman for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, said Strizki received $250,000 for the project from the previous administration of Democratic Governor Jon Corzine because the state was interested in developing the science of hydrogen fuel cells.

But he said the technology is both too costly and too extensive for widespread public adoption. “Right now, there is no real business application for it,” he said. “The typical homeowner in New Jersey isn’t even going to have the lot size for the storage tanks.”

Strizki believes he is seen as a threat to the status quo of the energy industry, especially in New Jersey, with its concentration of oil refineries, and neighboring Pennsylvania, a traditional coal state with a booming natural gas industry.

“I’m the guy who’s holding the DVD, and the rest of the world is on Betamax,” he said. “I’m sure that I’m being monitored.”

Strizki, 55, invested about $500,000 in the operation, and says the cost has now come down to $175,000, the price tag for another such building in the Cayman Islands where he recently installed the technology.

The cost could come down further to about $60,000 if the mass production of components achieved economies of scale, he said.

The Inevitable Question

While even the lower figure would be too much for most homeowners, Strizki argued that the technology could become financially attractive if it was adopted on a community-wide scale.

The cost is the big question mark over whether such technology can be widely adopted, said Haresh Kamath, program manager for energy storage and distributed generation at the Electric Power Research Institute.

While the technology has been demonstrated, it may be too expensive for some markets in its current state of development, Kamath said. “The real question is whether it makes sense in all cases.”

Still, the economics may become more attractive as capital costs decline, and researchers reduce the energy lost in the fuel-cell process, he added.

The federal government could support development of the technology via tax incentives, said Serfass of the Hydrogen Education Foundation. Although the latest spending cuts in the deficit-reduction package would seem to minimize the chances of that happening, some Senators have expressed an interest in energy initiatives this fall now that the debt-ceiling debate has concluded, he said.

Photo Caption: Mike Strizki’s solar panels generate enough power for him to live off the grid year-round at his house in Hopewell, NJ.