“I was a racecar driver, and then I found religion,” said Mike Strizki, neatly summing himself up for the group of curious students who had come to visit his “Solar-Hydrogen Home” in suburban New Jersey. His words captured the odd ingredients that compose his character, part avid environmentalist and part fierce libertarian. “No one wants what I’ve got,” he said, “except the masses.”
What Strizki has got is a home–and a car–powered entirely by solar power, hydrogen, and geothermal energy (for more pictures, click here). What he hasn’t got is an electricity bill or fuel oil delivery. The longtime fuel cell engineer and former civil servant has built a system that makes him entirely independent from the power grid utilized by millions of other Americans. During the summer, Strizki’s 35-odd solar panels generate about 160% of the energy he needs, allowing him to use the excess power to make hydrogen via electrolysis, a process that splits water into its component atoms. (The bi-product is clean drinking water). Strizki stores the hydrogen in eight tanks in his driveway, all at the relatively low pressure of 200 psi. Increasing that by a factor of 15 or 20 would allow him to design a system small enough for dense urban settings, but his cautious town government preferred the large, familiar and low-pressure look of propane.
The hydrogen serves to heat and cool his home, and is aided in this task by a geothermal system installed below the foundation of his house. By using the constant 58 degree heat of the earth as a heat source in the winter and a heat sink in the summer, Strizki manages to avoid heating and cooling costs that used to go as high as $400. Altogether, the system cost about a half-millon dollars to build, funded through a combination of company donations, state grants, and Strizki’s own savings.
The New Jersey Genesis
Strizki’s vehicle, “The New Jersey Genesis,” is another neat bit of engineering. The car was developed in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) in 2000, and was the first vehicle of its kind at the time. It’s a hydrogen-electric hybrid, with a range of 400 miles to the tank, a 0-60 time of about 6 seconds, and a weight that’s about one-fifth of a conventional sedan. It lacks the belts, gaskets, hoses, and other components that add substantial weight to most vehiles, and the absence of these reduces both its heft and maintenance costs.
As the developer of these technologies, Strizki is unoquivocal about portraying himself as David, battling the joint Goliaths of big oil and meddling government. “This is disruptive technology” he says, “and change is bad for these people.” He quit his job at with NJDOT in the early 1990’s after they stopped alternative energy research “because they were funded by gasoline taxes.” He claims to have been slandered online by oil industry lobbyists, and he criticizes big auto companies for pursuing 100% hydrogen vehicles that seem to remain forever on the technological horizon.
The Geothermal System
His relationship with government is hardly a rosier picture. A four year fight with the State Department of Environmental Protection over driveway construction on his property left him bitter with what he saw as faceless and illogical bureaucracy, and he encountered similar problems while constructing his renewable energy system. “There were–and are–no building codes for this sort of thing,” he said. “Some people thought I was trying to build the Manhattan Project out here.”
Strizki’s Yankee “do it yourself” spirit is not the only thing about him that might be described as stereotypically American. He takes pains to point out hat he owns a hot tub, swimming pool, big-screen TV, refrigerator, and many other goods that characterize prosperity in modern America. He is living his version of the American Dream, one defined in part by ownership of luxury items like these. His eagerness to show them off is understandable; after all, he has done more than most other Americans in squaring U.S. lifestyle with environmental principles. Nevertheless, it raises an interesting question. Even if all people lived as Strizki does, would our society be anywhere near sustainable? Can we really mitigate our impact on the earth at no cost to consumption, just by shifting the way that our TV’s and hot tubs are powered?
This blogger didn’t ask Strizki these larger philosophical questions, though it’s worth wondering what he might have said. In any case, there is no doubt that his system, if commercialized, could have a tremendous impact on our energy footprint. To that end, Strizki has idenfied three steps needed for large scale production: automation, integration of systems to communicate better, and national safety certification. He is looking for investors who will allow him to maintain a controlling stake in his company, to insure that the technology is not shelved the way GM shelved the electric car in the late 1990’s. If he finds such backers, early-adopters could begin purchasing the products within a few years.
Let’s hope he can do it.