With an air of nobility, a dose of hustle, and a boundless desire to save the world from air pollution, Robin Zachary Parker sits down to an elegant lunch at Mezzanotte in Coconut Grove. The tall, blue-eyed, 54-year-old Parker has stopped extolling the insalata frutti di mare and is now raving about the venturi effect (named after Italian physicist Giovanni Venturi). On a little square of paper he sketches a rectangle with a shape resembling an arrow-topped bottle inside. Owing to the laws of physics, he explains, if you create a large opening in one end of your house and a smaller one in the other, air will rush from the big hole to the little one. The phenomenon will help ventilate a very narrow home he designed and is building on half a lot in the north Grove. It's real simple, he says, even though it is not. Then he quickly moves on to explain his greatest passion this side of romance: an extremely complicated invention that couples energy storage with hydrogen production that he has spent the better part of two decades trying to develop. He is convinced it will help end the scourge of fossil fuels and therefore will be worth billions of dollars one day.
An architect by training, Parker has been orchestrating this still-nascent energy-storage revolution since 1984, the year he became president of Solar Reactor Technologies, a tiny firm that stumbled on a way to capture the sun's radiation using a compound called hydrogen chlorine (HCl). Since then SRT has been on a long, strange trip, fueled with funding from federal agencies interested in learning whether the technology could be used for power plants on Earth and missile systems in space. With each laboratory test, Parker's notion is looking less farfetched.
The contraption functions like a renewable battery, but it's the size of large room, filled with tanks, pumps, and power sources. Although the concept has remained basically the same for more than a decade, several years ago the company (which changed its name to SRT Group in 1996) switched from HCl to a similar, but less explosive compound, hydrogen bromine (HBr). There is no other technology available that links electricity and hydrogen like SRT's, boasts Parker. It's just so natural. Electrical energy storage with hydrogen production.
After lunch Parker walks two blocks to his office on the fourth floor of a brick building and excitedly continues the lesson. With a magic marker he scrawls a chemical formula on a white board that hangs above a long table littered with newspaper clippings: Br2 + H2O --> 2HBr + 1/2 O2. He adds a squiggly line that signifies an electrical current. We're pulling hydrogen off a hydrogen carrier, such as natural gas or water, he says. What we're doing is we're making HBr. Simply put, the current causes the HBr to split into H2 and Br, and the electricity is stored as chemical energy. Recombine the hydrogen and bromine into HBr and out comes the electricity.
SRT's batterylike invention has so many applications it sounds too good to be true. It would enable electric companies to avoid power shortages, which are becoming more common as demand increases, especially during summer months in the Sunbelt. Hooked up to coal plant smokestacks, Parker states, it could remove sulfur dioxide, one of the worst air pollutants. More important it can store wind and solar energy. And it can efficiently produce hydrogen. If you've been reading the papers, Parker notes, you would know this gas is the clean automobile fuel of the future. SRT owns 40 patents that cover various components of the device.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is so enthusiastic about the process it has provided money to keep work chugging along at SRT's labs at the University of Florida and Linden, Virginia, for the past seven years. Starting two years ago, power companies in England and Arizona contributed matching funds. This past July public officials in Wyoming joined the list of financial backers. But here in the Sunshine State interest has been as bright as a brownout. For years Florida Power and Light has shunned Parker's entreaties. The rejection has created an emotional venturi effect in the Parker clan because one of SRT's founders, Dennis Coyle, is now a senior executive at FPL. He's also Robin Parker's brother-in-law.
It is uncertain whether SRT's creation will ever become commercially available. Last year the DOE approved nearly eight million dollars in matching funds to build demonstration units in the field. We have come to the conclusion that the technology will work, confirms Neil Rossmeissl, manager of DOE's hydrogen program. The problem isn't the technology. The problem is that you need to be able to provide the funding to commercialize it.
Over the past year Parker has taken his energy-storage show to executives from major automobile and oil companies including Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, and Texaco. In June he flew to Washington to present SRT's discoveries to representatives of Hitachi. With about six million dollars of his family's and several investors' money now on the line, he hopes to hear back soon but is prepared for a long delay. What the DOE says is we're just going to limp along until we get a strategic partner, Parker explains. We're waiting for Godot.
Parker is not the first member of his family to dedicate himself to a grandiose idea. His grandfather John Gifford established one of this country's first nature preserves (in upstate New York) and applied botany to fighting poverty. His grandmother Martha Gifford was a missionary in India, a Coconut Grove teacher, and a poet. His mother Martha Melahn is a historical novelist. His father Alfred Browning Parker created an idiosyncratic style of architecture that earned him praise as a subtropical Frank Lloyd Wright. Robin is determined to make his mark in energy storage. Our family has always been interested in not just the environment but in the ecology of things and the relationship of all things, proclaims Alfred, an 83-year-old professor of architecture at the University of Florida. And that goes back to Robin's grandfather.
Grandpa Gifford was a botanist who received a Ph.D. in ecology from a university in Munich, Germany in the late 1800s and later became one of the first Americans to receive a doctorate in forestry from a U.S. institution. In the early 1900s Gifford helped establish the University of Miami's School of Tropical Forestry. Alfred became interested in one of Gifford's ideas while on sabbatical in Mexico in the Thirties. He was captivated by Gifford's concept of tropical subsistence homesteads, in which agriculture and architecture were connected. Specifically the old man talked about affordable houses built with native materials and surrounded by edible plants such as mangos, bananas, and avocados.
Upon Alfred's return from Mexico some 60 years ago, he paid a visit to the Gifford homestead on SW 27th Avenue in the Grove. The young architect and the botanist were conversing in the large living room (it had seven sofas) when Martha entered. She was just seventeen. I went into the room and Alfred asked me: So, what high school do you go to?' she recalls. And I said, I'm just about to graduate from the University of Miami.' Alfred liked her intelligence but admits other aspects also attracted him. A young, buxom seventeen-year-old? Who wouldn't be attracted? he chuckles. The two married later that year and renovated a small house on the Gifford estate. Inspired by his father-in-law, Alfred designed a generic plan for low-cost homes that would sit on five-acre lots. The idea was that you would live from the land, he says. You could build it very inexpensively using coral rock, native pine, and so on.
The third of five children, Robin was born in 1946. Robin was just about as difficult a child as you could imagine, Martha says. Robin just has an incredible drive and an awful lot of energy. And he had an awful lot of this when he was fifteen months old. He was not an especially good student, she adds, but he absorbed his parents' passion for housebuilding. Alfred and Martha built three homes in Miami, working nights and on weekends. Twice, just as they neared completion and were making plans to move in, admirers made offers the Parkers couldn't refuse. And so they began the process again.
[Alfred] Parker is part of that generation of architects that firmly believed in all the things that [Frank Lloyd] Wright espoused: pursuit of beauty and unity in architecture, says Rocco Ceo, an architecture professor at UM. They had a strong understanding of the nature of building materials and placed value on craftsmanship. Wood and stone were important elements. These architects viewed buildings as part of a natural environment. Interior and exterior spaces have to be connected. There's not a clear separation between inside and outside.
Martha was unconventional in her attitude toward marriage. In 1954 Alfred wanted to settle into a large house he designed. (It still stands on Royal Road in Coconut Grove.) House Beautiful magazine had sponsored the construction. But Martha, then 28, wanted to keep building. The idea of becoming a homemaker profoundly bored her. The marriage kind of came to an end with House Beautiful photographing the last home we built, she attests. As far as I was concerned, that was the end. Her decision to leave was determined by a combination of things. Child fatigue: You know, the household drag of [raising] five children. Wanderlust: My mother and father were world travelers, and I had been brought up in a family that could talk about Shepherd's Hotel in Cairo just as easily as the Biltmore in Miami. And I had never done any traveling whatsoever and felt incredibly ignorant because of this. Fear of a race war: I thought that in Coconut Grove the blacks were going to burn us out and burn us down, and I could well understand why.
She bolted across the Atlantic while the kids stayed behind with Alfred. I went to Europe and I said, This is what I want my children to see and experience.' I loved the food, I loved everything about this, and I was going to bring my children back. After traveling for a year she returned to the United States, picked up the kids, and relocated them to Switzerland. She enrolled them in boarding schools near the town of Bex on Lake Geneva. But Martha was off again soon, this time to Monte Carlo, where she accepted a job as secretary to the president of Joy Manufacturing, a mining equipment maker. She commuted back and forth by train. Robin got a wonderful foundation [of learning] from his father. But moving to Europe opened up the world to him, Martha says. In 1956 she divorced Alfred, then continued her wandering, working as a stringer for United Press International throughout Europe and later marrying a photographer.
Back in Miami Alfred wed one of Martha's friends, Jane Britt, and continued building a practice as a prominent architect with high-society clients. Insurance-mogul-turned-developer John D. McArthur hired him to design a large clubhouse at the PGA National Country Club, built in 1959 in Palm Beach Gardens. In 1960 he created a 230-foot beaconlike tower with a glass enclosed elevator, part of the ill-fated Bazaar International mall in Riviera Beach. The structure was demolished in 1998 to make way for an overpass. In the early Sixties he teamed up with developer Arthur Vining Davis (who founded Arvida) to erect the first homes in Gables Estates.
Robin returned to the United States in 1966 to attend the University of Florida at Gainesville. He did not involve himself in politics or anti-war demonstrations, but he enjoyed the cultural revolution erupting on college campuses. In addition to studying architecture, he participated in unconventional extracurricular activities such as photographing unclothed students in the library with Scott De Garmo, a buddy from Coconut Grove (and the son of architect Walter De Garmo, who helped build Coral Gables). Scott, who was editor of the student newspaper University Report, conceived of the shoot, which featured nude coeds with serious expressions on their faces. The idea was that everyone was so busy studying during finals that they didn't even notice that people were naked, Robin explains. One of the photographs ran in the paper and outraged administrators, he notes with a grin.
Robin has just been hell on wheels all of his life, his mother concludes.
He transferred to the University of Toronto in 1969, then to the University of Miami in 1972. While Robin was finishing his architectural training, his father was planting the seeds of SRT.
Robin inherited his father's eye for design, but by the time he joined his dad's firm in 1974, Alfred was preparing to endow his son with something else: a zeal for alternative energy. I had always had a feeling that we must change our habits, Alfred asserts, that we were really not doing good things to the planet, mainly in terms of burning hydrocarbons. Coal, gas, even wood, those are all hydrocarbons. This was the bug that was in my bonnet.
The insect buzzed his intellect until he met an electrical engineer named Robert Scragg. From 1971 to 1973 Scragg had worked in Reno, Nevada, with Bill Lear (of Learjet fame) to develop a steam turbine engine. After that project Scragg relocated to South Florida and began looking for contributors to finance a new venture: developing a system to use HCl as a fuel. I found that chlorine could be activated with light to the point at which it would detonate hydrogen, says Scragg, now age 73 and president of Alpha Engines Corporation in Daytona Beach. It is fourteen times more powerful than gasoline.
Scragg believed he could harness the blast and run engine pistons with it. Light from the sun would trigger the reaction. Ultimately he envisioned making small pollution-free power generators the size of twelve-by-twelve-foot cubes. Alfred was intrigued. They agreed to collaborate. Scragg would handle the engineering. The architect would raise money. He first kicked in $50,000. A friend of Scragg matched that amount, and the company was on its way. Scragg and an assistant set up a temporary laboratory in a garage on SW 27th Avenue, across the street from Alfred's offices. They soon decided a more remote location was prudent. We were afraid we were going to blow up the neighborhood, Alfred confesses. They moved to a site in the Homestead area owned by Aerojet, a rocket manufacturer.
With the Arab oil embargo and the Seventies energy crisis still fresh on people's minds, Alfred garnered about $900,000 from other investors. The lion's share came from two men: Brian Goldner, a former air force pilot and ballistics expert; and Harold Good, a retired physicist who had once served as chief of the Oldsmobile division of General Motors. Scragg recalls driving Good to the Homestead lab and giving him a demonstration. I took him down and showed him what kind of pressure and force could be developed with the explosion and he said, That's it!' Scragg remembers fondly.
Prominent Miamians also considered the idea a potential blockbuster.
In the very early days of SRT, we thought the technology was going to be one of the salvations of the world, freeing us from dependence on foreign oil, Dennis Coyle remembers. He was a young lawyer when he met Alfred through Jack Courshon, an attorney and real estate mogul. Jack said You've got to meet this guy. He's got this great technology that's going to solve all our problems,' recounts Coyle, who also provided free legal counsel to the fledgling company.
Thinking the space industry might take an interest in the company, which they named Solar Reactor Engines, Inc. (the name was later changed), Alfred and Scragg opened another lab near Cape Canaveral. By 1979 Scragg and another engineer, David Norton, had successfully built a ten-horsepower motor fueled with HCl and sunlight. They filmed it and began to show the new invention to scientists across the United States in hope of receiving financial backing to make larger commercial units.
Then, citing lack of funds, Alfred closed down the labs. Robin, at the time a father of two and in his second marriage (which ended in 1992), began a search for additional investors. Scragg continued to demonstrate the device to interested researchers but began devoting his energies to creating a new type of automobile engine that would run on natural gas. (He received a patent for that motor this past December.)
Little happened until 1984, when Alfred called a meeting of his stockholders. They approved several changes, and Alfred remained chairman but said he would devote more time to architecture. Robin became president and took charge. Coyle became an SRT director. He was of special importance because one of his clients was FPL, a potential backer. The group fired Scragg and Norton. We were sort of shoved out, so to speak, says Scragg, who hasn't spoken to the Parkers since then.
When asked about Scragg's departure from the company, Alfred comments: He got into building an engine. That's what he wanted to do.
Robin recalls that his father's failed efforts to win funding from the Department of Energy in the late Seventies eventually drew notice from another quarter of the federal government: the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Pentagon. Scientists thought the technology had potential for use in the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based missile system. Soon SRT had agreements with military contractors TRW and Rocketdyne. I had to have a security clearance, Parker says with a laugh. The FBI came down to visit us. It was a classified program, and we were the prime contract on it. The FBI man sat down and said, Have you ever used or known anyone who has ever used an illegal substance?' Parker cracks a smile. And I said, I grew up in Coconut Grove. I studied at the University of Florida in the Sixties. What do you think?' He said, No you have not [used drugs].'
With an unlimited budget, researchers explored not only using SRT's chemical process as a fuel source but also as an energy-storage system or fuel cell. However, Congress halted funding for SDI in 1988 and Pentagon money for the SRT project dried up. Parker came away with a valuable asset: data proving the energy-storage system worked. He promptly presented that evidence to the Department of Energy. DOE experts were concerned the technology might not be safe enough for commercial development because it used HCl, a highly volatile liquid. Robin and the people who advise him came to the conclusion that if you have a tank of HCl and it leaked, it would evaporate into the atmosphere, says Robert Hanrahan, a University of Florida chemist who has been SRT's lead scientist since 1984. He suggested HBr. Bromine is nowhere near as volatile, and it would probably just stay as a puddle for long enough to solve the problem, Hanrahan asserts. So it's a matter of working safety. That is not to say the liquid is safe. You've got to be very careful with it, he cautions. Scragg adds a warning about bromine gas: It'll eat the lining off your lungs in a flat second.
Hanrahan perfected the reaction with bromine instead of chlorine while the architect cum energy entrepreneur convinced DOE to keep funds flowing. Robin could talk the talk, Neil Rossmeissl reports. He's very intelligent and even though he wasn't a scientist, he knew enough from his experiments that he could really talk about the challenges to making the technology successful as well as the benefits, says Rossmeissl. Everybody respected what he was doing.
In 1993 Parker won more federal financing. At the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, researchers proved that SRT's solar energy storage apparatus worked with bromine. But there was a new problem: Department of Energy policymakers concluded that the high cost of solar collection devices needed for SRT's device would render it commercially unviable for a long time. Continued funding was in jeopardy.
It was at this juncture especially that Parker's incorrigible drive to bring SRT's energy storage wonders to the real world created tensions in his extended family. One infamous event in Parker lore took place at a family dinner on July 4, 1993, at his mother's house. Among those at the table were Parker, his sister Bebe, and her new boyfriend Dennis Coyle, who had been FPL's general counsel since 1989. Just a few days before, Parker had received a letter from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a San Francisco-based organization funded by power companies including FPL. He was very excited because EPRI had agreed to provide two million dollars per year for SRT's energy-storage experiments.
I remember Dennis saying, I don't believe in the technology,' much to Robin's shock, Melahn recalls. At my table!
Parker adds: All I wanted FPL to do was to write a letter to EPRI saying we support SRT's technology and we would like to sponsor a ... research program and we would like ten percent of our dues to go to their research program. That's all. He wouldn't even consider it.... He said I can't do it.' Right there in front of my mother and sister and everyone.
Parker remains bitter. We wasted ten years. He's cut off his friendship with Coyle, who married Parker's sister this past March. The drama here on this thing has been unbelievable, Melahn laments. It has been unbelievable because this business of energy is so big and it is so important. And Florida Power and Light has held SRT back incredibly. It has held it way, way back.
Coyle says he actually tried to interest FPL executives in SRT shortly after he joined the company in 1989. But since Jim Broadhead became CEO that year, Coyle explains, the utility has developed a policy which prevents it from investing in any technology that isn't already on the market. FPL stopped contributing to EPRI shortly after the dinner incident, contending the research institute was a waste of money. Robin has always felt that I let him down, Coyle says. There are all kinds of alternative power generation sources out there, fuel cells and so forth, and we simply don't invest in them. When a technology is proven we'll go out and buy whatever the product is and use it to produce electricity, but we're not in the research and development business. Our business is generating and distributing electricity.
And so FPL continues to make and sell electricity mostly by burning oil; about a third of its output relies on natural gas, and a fraction comes from coal. To meet demand in the Sunshine State the firm also buys power from Atlanta-based Southern Power, which uses mostly coal-fired generators. In California an FPL subsidiary generates electricity from two large solar energy facilities in the Mojave Desert and sells it to Southern California Edison. It's the most expensive power they buy, Coyle notes. We don't think [solar power] is going to lead anywhere productive. It's too expensive compared to the alternative means, which are nuclear or fossil fuels.
Ironically FPL owns the greatest number of wind farms in the nation, a total of fifteen in California, Iowa, Texas, Oregon, and Wisconsin. But spokesperson Carol Clawson suggests the company is in no hurry to develop a way to store that electricity for times when the wind is not blowing. The only way to store wind energy would be with batteries, she insists. And nobody has developed a battery that could be used on a large enough scale to work with wind farms.
FPL's rejection is all the harder for Parker to take because the DOE considers wind power a perfect application for SRT's technology. Rossmeissl thinks FPL's wind farms would be far more productive if, when the breezes cease, power could be stored in a SRT-style system. FPL is just not a supporter of energy storage, he concludes. They're similar to a lot of very conservative power companies. Their idea of energy storage is how much oil you have in a tank or how much natural gas you have in a line.
Other members of Florida's energy establishment such as Tampa Electric Company and Florida Power Corporation have also passed on SRT. So have State of Florida leaders who control millions of federal dollars available for renewable energy research. Among those Parker has contacted are state legislators and economic development gurus appointed by former governor Lawton Chiles and his successor Jeb Bush. I've been screwing around with Florida officials for fifteen years trying to get funding, and these bums don't even return a phone call, Parker grumbles. They don't answer mail; they don't return a phone call. Florida is always being written up [in newspaper articles] as a low-tech state. And I can see why.
And so Parker has taken his campaign to places east of the Atlantic and west of the Mississippi River. Last year DOE agreed to provide nearly two million dollars to build and test a ten-kilowatt, solar-powered electrical storage unit that uses HBr. Under the deal Parker was required to contribute $780,000. He managed to convince the Arizona Public Service Company (APS), one of the biggest energy suppliers in the southwestern United States, to provide $657,000 of it. With that money engineers at SRT's lab in Virginia currently are assembling the unit. If Parker can find supplemental funding, more testing would take place at one of the Arizona company's facilities. APS president Peter Johnston is uncertain about the project's future because of the cost of solar collectors. It's so damn expensive, he remarks. Notes Parker: Everyone's down on solar these days.
During the past year SRT has also been building an energy storage unit with the American subsidiary of one of England's largest utilities, National Power. DOE approved $2.5 million for the project; SRT and National Power are to provide another $2.5 million over several years. In late July of this year, Parker finally raised the last portion of nonfederal funding needed to keep the work moving: Wyoming governor Jim Geringer approved $475,000 from a public energy reserve. Once various components are assembled at National Power lab in North Carolina, engineers from that company and the nonprofit Wyoming Research Institute will assemble the module for a field demonstration in the western state. Parker says he has no idea when it will all be ready.
So far the project is on track, says Rossmeissl. They are meeting their milestones, he says. If all goes well within a year and a half, a field-tested unit could be ready for mass production. The question is whether the private sector will seize the opportunity. But that's a big if, observes Rossmeissl. For some reason in this country there is very poor investment in technology unless it's a dot-com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.