ZERO-ENERGY GOAL: A handful of homes (so far) are being designed for The Ridge at Chukkar Creek with a net-zero energy goal thanks to an innovative solar-and-hydrogen fuel cell solution.

Photos: Courtesy The Ridge at Chukkar Creek

ZERO-ENERGY GOAL: A handful of homes (so far) are being designed for The Ridge at Chukkar Creek with a net-zero energy goal thanks to an innovative solar-and-hydrogen fuel cell solution.

Building at The Ridge at Chukker Creek near Aiken, S.C., is just getting underway, but already the forested parcel is generating attention for its proposed use of a more affordable hydrogen fuel cell design that will enable net-zero energy use among a handful of new homes.

Running off of a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) array, smartly recessed into the trusses to run flush with a metal roof finish, the hydrogen electrolizer—sized to a residential scale—essentially serves as an on-site utility to provide electrical energy when the solar cells go dormant at night. “Traditionally, the cell will strip hydrogen [for energy] from natural gas, which is usually a carbon-intensive process,” says George Watt, a Boulder, Colo.–based architect charged with designing the first few semi-custom homes at The Ridge to employ the technology. Using solar energy instead, the system at The Ridge will emit only water vapor and oxygen from the process as the electrolizer separates the hydrogen for the fuel cell.

Using a device that tracks the path of the sun, Watt and developer Ron Monahan selected the five most suitable homesites for the PV-fuel cell system, which will eliminate the power bill for heating and cooling for those homeowners.

The scheme also eliminates the need for the homes to net-meter (or exchange energy credits) along the power grid with the local utility. In addition, it does not rely on traditional battery backups for PV-generated electricity, which can be cumbersome and unreliable.

To store and distribute the surplus energy from the PV panels, the project team and GreenWay Energy, a local fuel cell consultant and developer, will employ an underground propane tank, a far more affordable, reliable, unobtrusive, and readily available option for a residential application.

Photos: courtesy George Watt Architect

The system will be roughed in to the first five homes and offered as an optional upgrade to the already stringent green building standards at The Ridge. Watt has engineered the builders’ existing plans and specs—such as upgraded insulation and fenestration—and applied Energy Star standards to achieve a 50 percent to 60 percent energy-use reduction without the solar-hydrogen cell scheme.

The project team also selected home designs that suited the wooded setting of the community. Though contemporary, the homes sit low within the woods so the developer didn’t have to cut down a lot of trees, which helped maintain the natural landscape of the parcel. The designs also fit well with South Carolina’s historical vernacular. “Even though we are incorporating technological advances not yet seen in the marketplace of homes, we want the homes to look and feel warm, inviting, and nurturing, as a home should,” Watt says.