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Hydrogen Fuel Cells Could Add Year-Round Reliability to Renewable Energy

Jon Hurdle | April 3, 2013

Mike Strizki's 'Hydrogen House' weathers superstorm Sandy with lights blazing and plenty of hot water.

Even Mike Strizki's riding lawnmower is powered by a combination of solar energy and hydrogen fuel cells.
Even Mike Strizki's riding lawnmower is powered by a combination of solar energy and hydrogen fuel cells.

Since 2006, Mike Strizki has been living off the grid, generating all the electricity he needs for his 3,000 square-foot house from solar panels, and drawing on energy stored in hydrogen and converted by fuel cells when there isn’t enough sun power to meet his domestic demand.

He has around 100 solar panels mounted on rooftops, patches of ground, and mobile appliances dotted around his 12-acre compound in the woods near Hopewell, and has 11 hydrogen tanks to store excess energy for use during the sun-starved winter months.

The Hydrogen House, which Strizki says is the only one of its kind in the western hemisphere, is intended to demonstrate that solar power can be an infinitely available, emissions-free, year-round source of energy that isn’t limited by weather, as is often claimed by critics of renewable fuels.

If widely applied, the technology could make deep cuts in carbon emissions while ensuring individual energy security, cutting oil imports, and perhaps even reducing planetary exposure to the environmental havoc that comes from burning fossil fuels, Strizki said.

But at a typical cost of $60,000 to $90,000 after rebates and tax credits, the equipment that powers the house is beyond the reach of the average homeowner, even if he or she has the space to fit a dozen hydrogen tanks in the backyard. Critics have said the Hydrogen House is a utopian project that’s unlikely ever to be widely replicated.

Then came Sandy.

As falling trees knocked out power to their homes, Strizki’s neighbors had no light or heat, and couldn’t obtain gasoline or diesel for their portable generators because the gas stations, too, were out of power -- even if they could be reached via the rural roads blocked by downed trees.

Even residents with their own solar panels were unable to use them because they are commonly connected to the grid, and so owners are legally barred from generating power during an outage because of the danger of electrocuting crew members working to repair the damage.

But in the chaos, Strizki’s power stayed on, thanks to an off-grid adaptation of his hydrogen fuel cell technology that generated electricity from solar panels and a small wind turbine, and stored the power in a small hydrogen tank that’s a fraction of the size of his regular field of tanks.

The “Joule Box”, 16 feet high including its solar panel, and occupying a footprint of about three feet by four feet, generates 4 kilowatts -- enough to power regular domestic appliances such as heaters, refrigerators, and sump pumps, although not energy-guzzlers like central air conditioning, clothes dryers, or hot tubs.

But in the aftermath of Sandy, the absence of luxuries wasn’t a concern to Strizki’s neighbors, around 70 of whom visited his house over about six weeks after the October 29 storm to take showers, cook food, or just use the bathroom before their own power was finally restored, Strizki said.

Having a reliable and independent power source under such extreme conditions as Sandy has resulted in some orders from the military, Strizki said. Others have come from “preppers” who anticipate future environmental catastrophes and have lost faith in the government and the grid to provide basic power needs, so are preparing to survive in conditions that may resemble the breakdown wrought by Sandy.

“The American way is independence, and that’s what I’m offering,” he said in an interview.

The Joule Box price starts at $30,000 and goes to $75,000 for a fully loaded model that includes solar panels, wind turbine, and water-purification plant. The device also includes a meter to measure the power generated that will qualify for solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs).

Strizki makes the Joule Box himself, and customers have to buy it directly from him. He's looking for investors to back a manufacturing facility.

Although the price tag is still significant, it’s a lot less than it would have been a decade ago, thanks largely to a plunge in solar-panel prices which have dropped from $10 a watt in 2004 to 60 cents a watt now, Strizki said.

Patrick Serfass, vice president of the Hydrogen Education Foundation, said Strizki’s experience during Sandy is more evidence of the reliability of fuel cells that are often used for critical power sources such as cell phone towers and credit-card processing centers.

The cost of fuel-cell technology may be a deterrent to individual homeowners, especially since the recent surge in domestic natural gas supply has driven down electricity prices to the point at which it is hard for other energy sources to compete, Serfass said.

But fuel cells are increasingly recognized as a highly reliable power source, he said. “If you care about reliability, fuel cells are probably one of the best ways of getting there.”

Even if Strizki’s Joule Box isn’t required for backup power in future emergencies, there are plenty of other applications for its combination of renewable generation and hydrogen storage, said Strizki, a civil engineer turned green-energy evangelist.

They include a fuel-cell car; an all-terrain vehicle that Strizki uses to shuttle between his house and solar panel-covered workshop, and even a ride-on lawnmower that cuts, turns, and brakes in the normal way, all with zero emissions.

Inside the workshop, where benches are piled high with projects in progress, Strizki keeps a simplified model of the fuel cell that’s at the heart of his technology, and which he uses to demonstrate to the many visitors who drop by, some from overseas.

The cell is connected to two yellow balloons, one filled with hydrogen and the other with air that he blows in by mouth. The two gases are combined in the cell, which generates enough power to drive two small fans and a tiny light bulb.

Strizki makes his living mostly by designing solar panel mounting systems for commercial and public buildings. Recent clients include Toms River School District, where the rooftop solar display withstood a direct hit from Sandy, he said.

He said he has sold $4 million worth of the systems that are designed to endure extreme weather. But at 56, he’s not interested in getting rich, and is pursuing his clean-energy passion for the sake of coming generations, particularly his five grandchildren.

“I’m not interested in money,” he said. “I need enough to survive, but I’m doing this for the future. All the money in the world isn’t going to buy you another life.”

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.

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