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Off the Grid

What would you pay to get the utility companies - electricity, oil, gas - off your back and never pay them a dime again?

I don't know about you, but when I see my bills I want to pull the plug. For instance, the average house uses approximately 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month .

We all know there are other options out there -- costly ones -- including windmills, solar panels and geothermal, or drilling into the earth to draw its heat to power your home. 

Mike Strizki has another option he claims will save you money, create no emissions and take you completely off the grid, preserving the earth for generations to come.

He uses hydrogen

Strizki with toysThe sun is over 70% hydrogen. Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table -- colorless, odorless, literally lighter than air and, when combined with oxygen, creates your water. It is this basic chemistry, with more than a little help from the sun and the fuel cell system he created to transform hydrogen into power, that he uses in the 11-acre house in Hopewell, N.J., he completed retrofitting in 2006. That house is the nucleus of the educational Hydrogen House Project

"We have to educate the public that hydrogen is safe," he said at a recent program at N.J. Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. "We can't keep going down the same path. It just doesn't work that way."

To that end New Jersey Audubon is partnering with Hydrogen House to be the state coordinators of the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Eco-Schools USA program providing free materials to schools to include "sustainability education" in their curriculums. That includes tours of Hydrogen House, learning the nuts and bolts of creating sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is safer than the crude oil that exploded in flames recently in W. Va.  as it was being hauled by railroad. It creates none of the unpleasant side effects of fracking. For those who know history, Strizki insists the only reason the Hindenburg airship blew up over Lakewood, N.J., in 1937 was because rocket fuel coated the shell, not the hydrogen inflating it.

Looking at his website you can see Strizki is no mere tinkerer. He spent 16 years at the state Department of Transportation's Office of Research and Technology, leaving it when funding for renewable energy was cut because, unlike oil and gas,  "you can't tax free," he said. Since then he has worked on renewable energy and clean water projects around the world. He’s also come up with fun stuff, like the hydrogen-powered toys pictured above and below that can be directed from his hydrogen-charged cellphone..

How does hydrogen power work? According to his site:

Hydrogen House operates by collecting solar energy from a 21-kilowatt array of solar panels mounted throughout Strizki's property. The energy from the 70 thin film and 80 polycrystalline panels passes through inverters where it is collected in a relatively small battery bank used to run a low-pressure electrolyzer.

The electrolyzer splits water molecules into the base elements hydrogen and oxygen. Strizki's system stores the hydrogen in 11 reused low-pressure propane tanks, similar to those found at a typical gas station.  The hydrogen can then be burned for cooking and heating similar to natural gas, and can be converted into electricity by way of a hydrogen fuel cell.  The only emissions from the system are medical grade oxygen and chemically pure water!

There are 10 used propane tanks in back of Hydrogen House to store the gas to get him through times when there isn't a lot of sun, such as the short days of winter. Those 10 tanks provide enough hydrogen to power his house for a year. And you can make more - put in purified water and you can split it into hydrogen and oxygen or, using another of his products, the joule, recombine it with oxygen to form water that can be split again. It is the ultimate in recycling.

But as with anything new, there are two daunting drawbacks to going hydrogen - the cost and the government bureaucracy. hydrogen-powered truck

It cost Strizki $500,000 - that's half a million - to retrofit his Hopewell home back in 2006. He said he put in $100,000 of his own money and got the rest from New Jersey Board of Public Utilities grants and donations, he said. He is now building a second home in Hopewell that will cost about a fifth of that, in part because he has developed more streamlined and simpler storage technology that doesn't require a tank farm.

He said it took 3 ½ years to get all the permits to retrofit his house because of those 10 old propane tanks. The local building inspector took one look and refused to do anything, he said. The process was moved to another agency that treated the home as an industrial facility, also because of those tanks. Even then the process sat in limbo until, he said, he got the New York Times involved. He got his permits.

Strizki said that now, with his smaller, more portable fuel-cell system - which uses flexible, lightweight solar panels rather than the heavier ones seen on roofs or in solar panel farms -- the only permit a homeowner has to get is for the connection to the house, just as someone must do to install an outside, permanent generator -- the kind that became very popular with homeowners after Hurricane Sandy.

Such generators "just sit there and cost you money,"  he scoffed, while his system saves money. As for the simpler permitting, the regulators are "not happy about it but there is nothing they can do about it."

That was certainly on the minds of those in the audience, who peppered him with questions. There is something very appealing about saving money and becoming self-sufficient. cellphone charger

For instance, Hydrogen House never lost power after Sandy, he says on his website, at a time when "New Jersey’s electric utility companies scrambled to fix downed power lines and busted transformers." As you can imagine, his house became very popular with the neighbors who were without electricity for over a week and needed to power up their phones using the charger he developed (pictured). This charger, the streamlined power system and other products he has developed are detailed on the site, too.

The cost of the technology will come down over time - as it has with computers that are smaller but have more power than the ones that used to take up a whole room, for instance - as will the retrofitting cost and the cost of your energy usage. But the initial outlay is high.

Scherman Hoffman director Mike Anderson said he'd love to have a renewable source of energy to power the education center and offices. Right now they are powered using propane. Most of the old oil tanks used in the former Hoffman estate were removed.

Sustainability is a wonderful idea but it's a costly reality.

To Strizki, it's all about self-sufficiency and not being "squeezed and controlled" by the government. It's also about removing your "carbon footprint" and saving the planet for our children and grandchildren.

How much is that worth to you?

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