NJ solar-hydrogen home bottles sunshine

    Energy prices have swung up and down so wildly this year, that many homeowners are worried about how much it will cost to keep warm this winter. One New Jersey homeowner is not one of them. He’s built the first solar-hydrogen home in North America. Eugene Sonn paid a visit and filed this report.

    Energy prices have swung up and down so wildly this year, that many homeowners are worried about how much it will cost to keep warm this winter. One New Jersey homeowner is not one of them. He’s built the first solar-hydrogen home in North America. Eugene Sonn paid a visit and filed this report.

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    When you pull up Mike Strizki’s driveway in Hopewell, New Jersey, it doesn’t look like the home of a guy who is devoted to renewable energy.

    Strizki:I’ve got just about every mechanical gadget known to man here. Snowmobiles, backhoes, bulldozers, all the good old fossil fuel toys.

    But Strizki also has toys that run on renewable energy. Like a hydrogen powered fuel cell car that he built when he worked for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. And this is no wimpy machine.

    Strizki: I’ve torn 3 axles out of this car already because of the torque.

    On purpose?

    Strizki:Yeah, I kind of squealed wheels and the tires bit and twisted the axle like a straw, so now it has titanium axles in it.

    Mike Strizki stands next to his fuel cell
    Mike Strizki stands next to his fuel cell
    Strizki fuels up his car next to his oversized garage at the quietest power plant you’ll ever see. He has 56 solar panels that generate more electricity than he can use. So he takes the excess power and runs the current through water, splitting off the hydrogen and oxygen, storing the hydrogen in ten 16-foot long tanks. That’s where he fills up the hydrogen car, and whenever there is not enough solar power and his batteries are depleted, he runs a fuel cell to generate electricity for his home.

    Strizki: The fuel cell only runs 3 and a half months a year. It runs December, January, February, and part of March. It’s generally only at night time or if the panels are covered with snow.

    The fuel cell is the size of an outdoor air conditioning unit. It silently combines the stored hydrogen with oxygen from the air to create energy. The only products are electricity, heat and water. You’re probably asking….how much does this cost? Strizki says he put at least 100-thousand dollars of his own money into it. Another 250-thousand dollars came from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities which awarded him a demonstration grant to prove a hydrogen-solar home could work. Strizki has started a company to install similar systems. He has a client across town where the energy systems will cost a half a million dollars. He says those well-heeled energy pioneers are helping the technology get adopted more widely.

    Strizki: So the same people who spent $200,000 for the first plasma screen TV’s are now buying into the hydrogen home, even if it’s a bragging factor. These are the people who will help it get to the next level so it will be affordable for everyone.

    He says the projects cost so much now because the technology is evolving and they can’t take full advantage of mass-production. Solar panels…which are a big part of the project cost…are becoming more efficient and less expensive.

    Right now, Strizki’s best customers are in the Caribbean. Islands that generate all their electricity by burning diesel fuel pay three to five times as much for electricity as we do in America. In places like that, Strizki says the system pays for itself in two to five years without government subsidies.
    Dunbar Birnie, associate director of the Energy Institute at Rutgers University, says he’s also hopeful that systems like this will get cheaper as they are mass-produced. Birnie says there are questions the project can answer that lab simulations cannot.

    Bernie: Can we pressurize the hydrogen and store it more densely or do we need huge tanks? Or how much energy when we generate the hydrogen and then use a fuel cell to generate electricity back again, how much electricity do we get out from the electricity we put in originally?

    However Birnie does not think there will be a “game-changing” improvement to the technology that will make it radically cheaper.

    Hydrogen storage tanks sit next to Mike Strizki's garage.
    Hydrogen storage tanks sit next to Mike Strizki's garage.
    Back at Strizki’s house, the 3-thousand square foot colonial looks pretty ordinary – except, of course, for the solar panels and hydrogen tanks next to the garage. He prides himself that the house is energy efficient but still has all the amenities you could want…swimming pool, hot tub, big screen TV. And despite the high-tech way he generates power, he relies on basic technology to make it happen. By insulating heavily, buying the best windows he can and the most energy-efficient appliances, his home uses 60 percent less power than a typical home of its size.

    So this is the part of the conversation where people ask Strizki that nagging safety question. Especially in New Jersey, home of the Hindenburg disaster.

    Archive audio: And the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring masts. Oh the humanity! And all the passengers. I can’t talk ladies and gentlemen.

    Contrary to popular belief, in the past decade or so experts have concluded that it was a coating on the outside of the Hindenburg — not hydrogen inside the zeppelin — that initially caught fire. Strizki says people are uncomfortable with hydrogen only because it’s unfamiliar.

    Strizki: In reality, hydrogen diffuses more rapidly into the air than any other gas. So you’re looking at a gas that’s not gonna sit around and collect and wait for a flame like propane or natural gas that you have inside your homes in most people’s basements.

    Strizki says he thinks more people will take a good look at hydrogen now that auto-makers have begun to deliver fuel-cell powered cars in limited numbers. He’s in line to lease a Mercedes and a Chevy some time next year. At least for a while, however, his driving will have to be local. Other than his house, the nearest hydrogen fueling station is 100 miles away in White Plains New York.

    For WHYY news, I’m Eugene Sonn in Hopewell, New Jersey.

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