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Crist sets green example at mansion
A hydrogen fuel cell is $70,000, but some say it is worth it.
By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published July 18, 2007
Mike Sole, Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, (right) explains to Gov. Charlie Crist, the hydrogen fuel cell recently installed at the governor's mansion.
Gov. Charlie Crist points to the solar pool heating system recently installed on top of the pool house at the governor's mansion.
TALLAHASSEE - The people's mansion, as Gov. Charlie Crist calls it, just got a bit greener.
But the price tag on one of the new environmental technologies installed at the mansion will make it hard for the people to break even for more than 20 years.
Gov. Charlie Crist returned to Tallahassee on Tuesday fresh from an environmental summit to showcase some of the ways he is leading by example at the mansion. At the summit, Crist made national headlines for signing a slew of aggressive goals to cut carbon emissions in Florida.
One of the new environmental technologies Crist chose to adopt at the mansion - a $70,000 hydrogen fuel cell - highlights a problem that many homeowners face when they're trying to balance the cost of cutting emissions against the environmental benefits.
Environmentalists say that the governor's efforts carry political cachet which trumps cost-effectiveness arguments.
"I don't think a hydrogen fuel cell is going to be a first choice for Florida homeowners," said Holly Binns of Environment Florida. "But it could make sense for businesses or big facilities, so the governor is setting an example and demonstrating in a very public way the types of renewable energy options out there."
The Governor's Mansion is hardly any old house. At 13,000 square feet, it's palatial and open to visitors, which means the lights and air conditioning can't always be turned off when the governor's not around. An April energy audit reported that the monthly energy bill - including water, sewer, gas and electricity - ran between $4,000 and $6,000. The audit found that the Governor's Mansion was reasonably energy efficient.
But new solar panels and a hydrogen fuel cell will reduce the mansion's emissions by 20 percent, the Governor's Office touts.
"On several different fronts, with solar and hydrogen, there are many different ways to approach this issue. We're trying to set an example by doing what we're doing here today," Crist said during a news conference at the mansion. "Again, I want to emphasize this is just a first step."
However, the new hydrogen fuel cell isn't all that cost effective. It is expected to produce 22,000 kilowatt hours worth of power for the mansion each year. At a rate of just over 13 cents a kilowatt hour (charged by the utility owned by the city of Tallahassee), the cell saves about $2,900 off the mansion's annual electric bill. At that rate, it won't pay for itself until 2031.
By contrast, the $3,500 solar panels installed above the pool cage in the mansion's outdoor swimming pool will pay for themselves in electricity bill savings in about a year, according to the governor's press office. The panels will convert solar power into electricity to heat and circulate water through the pool.
To Florida homeowners, $3,500 solar panels can look pretty pricey after paying skyrocketing insurance bills and property taxes.
The state has a $3.5-million rebate program to help those who install solar panels and some other energy saving devices, up $1 million from last year, when the program helped 2,236 homes. By contrast, California has a $2.9-billion solar rebate program that stretches 10 years.
The hydrogen fuel cell was installed by a company called Plug Power Inc., which is based in Latham, N.Y. The fuel cell, which looks kind of like a large air conditioner, turns natural gas into electricity by extracting hydrogen from the natural gas.
The company has installed the hydrogen fuel cells in homes only as part of larger demonstrations. They're not even sold to households, said Al Bucknam, a vice president with Plug Power Inc., the only company that responded to the state's request for a competitive bid.
"When you burn hydrogen, you're basically emitting water," said Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole. "It's the future of energy technology. ... By getting that hydrogen in our fuel mix, we'll further lower our pollution discharges."
Environmentalists say that consumers should look to these more expensive measures after pursuing more cost-effective ways of reducing energy emissions, including insulating attics, sealing windows and doors and replacing regular light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. The governor's mansion has already done most of these energy efficient measures, according to its April energy audit.
Another big way to keep costs down is to keep the air-conditioning thermostat turned up to 78 or 80 degrees. Heating and air conditioning make up roughly 60 percent of energy consumed in households.
When pressed, Gov. Crist acknowledged that he still likes to keep the mansion chilly with his thermostat turned down to the low 70s. He agreed that uses a lot of energy.
"You just got to do the best you can," Crist said.
How it works
A hydrogen fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to produce electricity, with water and heat as byproducts. They produce much smaller quantities of greenhouse gases and none of the air pollutants that create smog and cause health problems.
For more information on how hydrogen fuel cells work: Visit www1.eere.energy. gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/fuelcells/basics.html.