In a green energy world, hydrogen has the characteristics of a wonder fuel: It is plentiful, its consumption does not produce carbon emissions, and it is a clean fuel for the rapidly advancing fuel cell technology sector.
Of the many experimental projects already underway, hydrogen-powered homes are demonstrating the potential—and challenges—of using hydrogen in a residential setting.
Hydrogen House Sweden
Perhaps the most publicized example of a hydrogen-powered residence is the so-called Hydrogen House, or Nilsson House, near Gothenburg, Sweden, pioneered by former industrial engineer Hans-Olof Nilsson. Here, hydrogen is an important fuel link in a complex utilization of many different energy technologies that allow the house to be completely carbon neutral and entirely off-grid.
One of the house’s many technologies is renewable solar energy. The Nilsson House roof holds solar panels capable of generating 20 kilowatts (kW) of electricity at peak times.
Because the sun does not always shine in a place as far north as Sweden, a truly sustainable home must employ technology to capture and store the solar energy for later use.
Toward that end, surplus electricity charges a storage system of batteries. Any excess electricity generated after the batteries are fully charged is then “stored” in the form of hydrogen via a device known as a proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer. It uses excess electricity to run an electric current through water (H2O), breaking apart the bond of hydrogen molecules (H2) with an oxygen molecule (O) and extracting the hydrogen gas, a process called electrolysis.
At the Nilsson House, the hydrogen extracted by the electrolyzer is then pressurized and stored in containers (tanks). When the cold and dark winters descend on Sweden, the hydrogen is released from the storage tanks and delivered to a fuel cell, which essentially reverses the process started by the electrolyzer, producing clean electricity.
The fuel cell creates an electrochemical reaction that bonds the hydrogen back to oxygen. This process releases energy in the form of electricity that is used to recharge the batteries and run the appliances in the home. The only resulting byproduct of this reaction is water, which can be reused to generate more hydrogen and start the process all over again. Or, if any Nilsson family members get thirsty, they can use the water for drinking. Yes, it’s that pure.
In honor of his innovative application of these technologies, Nilsson was awarded Hydrogen Sweden’s “Swedish Hydrogen Award” on October 27, 2022. He has garnered international attention, and many advocates for a hydrogen economy have visited, studied, and applauded his home.
Perhaps most remarkable is that he built and funded the house entirely on his own and has lived in it off-grid since 2015.
Hydrogen House America
The Nilsson House is not the only example of a residence fueled by hydrogen.
Halfway across the world, the non-profit Hydrogen House Project showcases a very similar residence in Hopewell, New Jersey. It was founded by inventor Mike Strizki in 2011. Five years earlier, he had converted his own home in Hopewell to run on solar and hydrogen power.
Strizki completed the project with grants from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, supplemented by his own personal funds. He describes it as “the first solar-hydrogen residence in North America.”
Like the Nilsson House, the primary source of power comes from solar photovoltaic panels. Electricity generated from the solar panels powers an electrolyzer that dissociates water to form hydrogen. The hydrogen is compressed and stored in tanks and later fed into a fuel cell where it can generate electricity again.
Hydrogen doesn't just fuel the home. Strizki also drives a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car, which runs on the hydrogen his home creates. Even his lawn mower runs on a hydrogen fuel cell. As an additional energy source, his house also uses a geothermal system.
Strizki's home has been running effectively and completely off-grid for twenty years, prompting him to build a second hydrogen-powered home.
In 2015, the Hydrogen House Project announced that it had built “the first commercially produced fully-permitted and affordable, solar-hydrogen, on/off-grid residence in the world.” This second Strizki-built home was built in the town of Pennington, also located in New Jersey. It features solar panels with 40 kW production capacity, an electrolyzer to generate hydrogen, a hydrogen fuel cell, and 20 kW capacity of fuel-cell backup power from stored hydrogen. Since then, Strizki has built eight more hydrogen homes, and is planning to build eight more.
Using the technologies applied in his Hydrogen House Project, Strizki invented also a unique Off-Grid Portable Charge Station, also called the Joule Box. It packages all the innovative energy features of the hydrogen house into a compact stand-alone “box” that can provide electricity for all the amenities required in a home, enough to power a full kitchen, laundry, bathrooms, hot tub, and multimedia entertainment systems during an electric power grid failure.
The Joule Box functions as a portable charge station capable of providing continuous off-grid electricity. It features tracking solar panels with GPS technology and battery back-up power storage. Optional wind turbine and onboard hydrogen gas generation can provide extra energy production and storage capacity. The box can even back-feed power into the electrical grid.
The concept of a hydrogen-powered home is also catching on in other countries. In 2020, the Hydrogen House Project announced Hydrogen House Australia, which will feature two new homes being built near Sydney.
Separating Benefits from Costs
The enthusiasm for hydrogen as the fuel source of the future raises one glaring question: Why isn't this fuel more widely used?
The answer is that, like other clean and plentiful, renewable energy sources, it’s not easy to harness hydrogen.
The extraction of hydrogen from water is only carbon neutral if the electricity used for generating it comes from renewable energy, like solar or wind power.
On the plus side, hydrogen is abundant. In fact, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. The sun and other stars are essentially big balls of hydrogen gas.
However, hydrogen only occurs on Earth in compound form with other elements, such as in water, natural gas, petroleum, and coal. For hydrogen to be used as a fuel, it must be separated from these other elements.
Extracting hydrogen from natural gas, petroleum, and coal creates harmful carbon emissions—just the kind that a clean energy future would avoid.
Separating hydrogen from water gets around this problem, but it has challenges of its own. The process of electrolysis requires energy itself. Therefore, the extraction of hydrogen from water is only carbon neutral if the electricity used for generating it comes from renewable energy, like solar or wind power.
Hydrogen is an efficient fuel, but the processes of electrolysis and compression of hydrogen for storage are big energy consumers, eating away at the efficiency gained by the fuel.
Another obstacle to widespread use of hydrogen is the lack of an existing supply infrastructure.
Hydrogen needs to be either highly pressurized or liquified when it is stored, transported, and dispensed.
Hydrogen needs to be either highly pressurized or liquified when it is stored, transported, and dispensed. For more homes, cars, buildings, and industry to be able to run on hydrogen, the national energy transportation infrastructure would have to be modified and expanded to meet those needs. The federal Department of Energy, for example, is engaged in extensive research to address these challenges.
Lastly, in addition to the huge investment required to upgrade the infrastructure, people who want to use hydrogen energy would also have to retrofit their homes, shops, and offices. One look at the myriad solar panels, electrolyzers, compressors, fuel tanks, and fuel cells of the two hydrogen-powered houses in Sweden and New Jersey will remind any enthusiast of the substantial upfront investment they will have to make before tapping into this abundant resource.
On the other hand, the transition to clean energy is propelled by optimism, ingenuity, and persistence. Not too long ago, solar and wind power seemed like exorbitantly expensive pipe dreams, but they are now becoming more affordable, accessible, and commonplace.
In the words of the Hydrogen House Project’s Mike Strizki, “A lot of new methods are going to come out in the next couple of years to make hydrogen cheaper and renewable, and that really is the holy grail.”
Getting rid of fossil fuels requires all options and possibilities. With continued research, refinement, and cost-cutting, hydrogen may soon be one of the most potent weapons against climate change.
*Richard Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has been covering renewable power and other related subjects for more than ten years.