Small is beautiful.
Here is a fun article from The Green Wombat retelling the “solar-to-hydrogen” car story for the millionth time. I read stories like this in Popular Mechanics decades ago. The article talks about using solar panels to store sunlight as hydrogen to burn in internal-combustion-powered cars. Australia has a lot of sunlight and summers can be hot. It would be far more efficient to use that sunlight to power swamp coolers to air-condition homes than to throw 90% of that solar energy away converting it to hydrogen and then burning it in a 30% efficient internal combustion engine. Passing hydrogen through a fuel cell to power an electric car or light a home would also be a lot more efficient.
Seattle has a very different situation. We have a surge of sun in the summer, very little sun in the winter, little need for summer air conditioning, but a significant need for winter heating. Ideally, the excess summer sun could be stored as hydrogen to heat a home with a conventional 95% efficient furnace supplemented with a passive solar hot-air system. More than once, I have looked into the feasibility of using solar panels to generate hydrogen to heat a home. Here is an old PDF that details just how complex that process is.
On one hand, this makes little sense. Why become a small player in the power-generation business? Then again, the thought of heating my home with hydrogen made with my own solar panels is appealing, so what would I have to do to pull this off? According to this article, you would need about half a million dollars for a 3,000-square-foot home. Which sums up the problem. Everyone wants something for nothing. Who needs a 3,000-square-foot home?
This project was put together by an engineer (nerd king) who wanted a hydrogen-powered house really bad and this was the only way he could get it. Anyone could have sat down with a pencil and paper and verified that it is possible to power a house of this size with sun and hydrogen. There was no need to actually build it. You can also go to the moon if you are willing to spend enough money. All he did was put a huge array of solar panels on his garage hooked to some commercial-grade hydrogen generator that also separated that hydrogen from the oxygen and then compressed it into ten gigantic gas storage tanks. He also got his hands on a herking big fuel cell to convert some of that hydrogen back into electricity. He hopes that with mass production, a house of this size could be powered with solar-generated hydrogen for as little as $100,000. That is unlikely to be so in the foreseeable future, but let’s run with it. Assume his system is scaleable, and divide everything by an order of magnitude to get $10,000 to heat a 300-square-foot home. The problem, of course, is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Living off grid in a 3,000-square-foot home is never, ever, going to be feasible.
Coincidentally, 300 square feet is the exact size of the park model house trailer I lived in for four years after Boeing moved me out to Seattle from Purdue. I paid $4,000 for it (used), saved enough for a down payment on a small fixer house, and then sold it for $4,000. This suggests that for about $14,000 I could have lived in the Seattle area, almost off grid, with no mortgage. I also rode my bike the short distance to work, lugging a briefcase while wearing a jacket and tie. If I hadn’t given up my life in a trailer, what would I have done with all of my extra income? This would make a good subject for another post.
I envision a future where most resources go into a home’s energy system, instead of cavernous space and fine wood trimmings. Status symbols take many forms. There is nothing inherent about cavernous space being a status symbol. That can be changed, and small spaces, when well designed, are more conformable than big spaces, as anyone who lives in a medieval castle will tell you. Driving a Prius is cool for the moment, living in a trailer park is not. But what if you could make living in a small space cool? Living in that trailer with my girlfriend (now my wife) was one of the most enjoyable times of my young adult life, and I met some wonderful salt-of-the-earth trailer trash doing it. I will describe what it was like in another post as well.