Smart Takes

Personal energy systems: Are we there yet?

Posting in Energy

The idea of a personal energy system is pure genius. You put a few solar panels on the roof and harness excess electricity for use at night. Your home could be completely detached from the energy company.

The idea of a personal energy system is pure genius. You put a few solar panels on the roof and harness excess electricity for use at night. Your home could be completely detached from the energy company.

How close are we to this vision? We're still a few years away, but some key building blocks have fallen into place in recent weeks.

At the recent National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, MIT professor Daniel Nocera focused on personal energy systems, which allow a home to produce its own energy.

These personal energy systems have rooftop solar panels to produce electricity. Surplus energy goes into an electrolyzer, which would break water down into hydrogen and oxygen. These two elements would be stored in tanks and used for energy at night and drinking water when solar power wasn't an option.



The problem is that this electrolyzer needs catalysts to produce oxygen. Catalysts for hydrogen already exist. Nocera, however, said there's a new catalyst that leads to a 200-fold improvement oxygen production. This catalyst technology, which has been already licensed to Nocera's startup Sun Catalytix, would eliminate the need for platinum and toxic chemicals to create a chemical reaction.

Add it up and all of the parts of a personal energy system seem to be ready. Nocera said in a statement:

We're working toward development of 'personalized' energy units that can be manufactured, distributed and installed inexpensively. There certainly are major obstacles to be overcome — existing fuel cells and solar cells must be improved, for instance. Nevertheless, one can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic system.

If Nocera is right large scale deployments of solar panels are around the corner. And your home will be its own power plant.

However, questions remain:

  • What would these systems cost?
  • What would the subsidies look like?
  • What would happen to utilities?
  • And will these systems roll out first in emerging markets or developed ones?

Share this

Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure