Solar panels installed in a New Jersey neighborhood nowadays are about as common as hydrangeas or dandelions. But the panels outside the Pennington home of Alice De Tiberge are one part of a more unusual green energy project. De Tiberge’s house is not just a solar home. It’s a solar-hydrogen home — the first commercially produced, fully-permitted solar-hydrogen residence, according to the man who designed and installed the system, Mike Strizki.
The solar-hydrogen system, which went online earlier this year, addresses one of the limitations of what can now be called “traditional” solar power: The storage of energy for later use. While most solar homes either go dark or rely on power from the utility company’s grid when the sun goes down, a solar-hydrogen system generates hydrogen, which can then be stored and used in fuel cells for electrical production later. Some solar homes have battery storage capacity (see sidebar, page 33), as well. But batteries eventually lose their charge; hydrogen gas can be stored long-term. When it’s converted to electricity through a fuel cell, the only byproducts are pure water and oxygen.
It’s technology that has been used in space shuttles for decades. And — according to many reliable sources — it’s safer than most fuels.
Meanwhile, De Tiberge is enjoying the benefits of her solar-hydrogen powered home, which has all the amenities of a typical modern house and more: a full kitchen with induction cooking and all LED lighting, laundry, bathrooms, hot tub, multimedia entertainment system, sewing/crafts room, and an office. She also has a charging station for her hybrid/electric car, and is considering the purchase of a hydrogen car in a few years when the infrastructure for such vehicles is more in place. (One sign of progress: Toyota is committed to hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles and on October 20 the company unveiled its new Mirai sedan.)
De Tiberge’s property on Woosamonsa Road includes 11 wooded acres where she has been working for the past two years as a state-appointed steward, planting trees and digging out invasive plant species.
As a person committed to the environment, she was curious several years ago when she heard about Strizki’s hydrogen house project. In 2006 Strizki outfitted his own house and workshop in Hopewell Township with a solar-hydrogen power system. After taking one of Strizki’s house tours offered to the public, De Tiberge knew this was what she wanted to do.
Memories of Hurricane Sandy from 2012 were still fresh in her mind. She had been living in Skillman with her school-age son and daughter. “It was really bad,” she said, “living alone with my kids.” Although she had solar panels, she had no back up batteries or fuel cells and lived without power for about four days.
During the aftermath of Sandy, De Tiberge and members of a church group devoted several days to helping families from the shore, cooking and providing living essentials. De Tiberge bought $3,000 worth of blankets and delivered them herself.
When she decided to have Strizki install a system for her Pennington home, she decided to go with a system that would give her enough power to live totally off the grid for 10 to 12 days if another Sandy-type storm hit. She paid $182,500 for her system, which includes a solar installation with slightly over 38 kilowatts (kW) of power.
The heart of the system is what Strizki calls a “Joule box,” which includes an electrolyzer to generate hydrogen and a hydrogen fuel cell that can convert the hydrogen into 24kW of backup power for use in the event of a utility outage. A 1,000 gallon tank (similar to a propane tank) that is installed underground behind the Joule box stores the hydrogen. (Strizki also sells Joule boxes, which occupy a footprint of about three feet by four feet, separately to people who want a backup power system.)
De Tiberge projects that by the end of this year she will have recouped at least $12,000 of her initial investment from electricity bill savings of $7,000 to $8,000 and money earned from selling Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs or RECs). Based on the megawatt hours of renewable energy her system creates, she receives certificates each month that she can sell to electric utilities or other electricity suppliers responsible for meeting the state’s standards.
As of early October, she had made $5,600 from selling the SRECs she had earned since April when her system was fully operational, and by the end of October, she had accumulated another six SRECs. In addition, says De Tiberge, she will receive tax credits based on 30 percent of her initial investment.
De Tiberge projects that it will take six to eight years at most to recoup her investment. She hopes she never experiences another storm like Sandy again, but if she does, she will be better prepared. “I’ll be able to help my neighbors as well,” she says.
Beyond saving money and being prepared for power outages, using renewable energy and taking care of the land harmonizes with De Tiberge’s devotion to protecting the environment.
De Tiberge, whose father was an executive with Caterpillar Inc., grew up in Venezuela where her parents met. After arriving in Princeton in the 1980s, De Tiberge founded a popular catering company, Chez Alice, which she sold in the late 1990s. Since then she has worked developing custom swimming pool and spa covers, selling a skin care line, and currently consulting on home renovations.
Like her parents, she is a world traveler. On a visit to Japan, she was unsettled to see people, mostly women and children, wearing masks to cope with the air pollution. “I want to do what I can for the quality of our environment, for my kids and their kids. I’m proud that my solar-hydrogen home is an example of what is possible,” she says.
With some modernization, De Tiberge’s system was modeled after the system at Strizki’s home, which he built in 1991. With the help of a grant from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, he converted it to the first ever regulation approved solar-hydrogen residence by 2006.
Strizki’s business, based next to his house in Hopewell Township, is continuing its solar-hydrogen approach. Recently he gave a presentation to the California Hydrogen Business Council and he just finished a private installation of a fueling station for a Mirai sedan owner.
Currently he is installing a system for a new California client. In addition, he has been working on his next set of benchmarks for phase two of his hydrogen house, which includes adding a wind turbine, upgrading his electric speedboat, motorcycle, and fuel cell lawn mower, and continuing work to make the solar-hydrogen model affordable for the average homeowner. The system he built for De Tiberge cost her around $180,000. Although it is hard to predict an exact dollar amount, Strizki projects that a house with the very same setup could come down to about $60,000 within the next 10 years.
Strizki’s energy production starts with an array of solar panels mounted throughout his property. Electricity generated by the panels can be used as needed, and excess energy is stored in a battery bank. He uses batteries for brief peak energy periods. When the batteries are full, the energy is channeled into an electrolyzer, connected to a water supply, which splits water into its base elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is sent to low-pressure storage tanks, and the oxygen is released into the atmosphere. The stored hydrogen is routed through a fuel cell that can make electricity on demand. Hydrogen also can be burned for cooking and heating similar to natural gas and propane.
In addition to his home’s needs, Strizki fills the tanks in several vehicles: his hydrogen fuel cell car named “Genesis,” a lawn mower, and other riding machines. The only emissions, he says, are medical grade oxygen and chemically pure water.
During the summer season, Strizki says he gets all of his energy needs from the panels. Moving into the fall, as the days get shorter, the hydrogen and fuel cells kick in to pick up the shortage of immediate solar energy. He is able to store two months of energy for his home and vehicles in 10 1,000-gallon propane tanks, he says, and without the vehicles, he would have three and a half months of energy.
Using solar, hydrogen, and his home’s geothermal heat system, he says he pays no energy bills and sells the excess electricity his system produces back to the grid at a profit ranging from $4,000 to $7,000 per year.
De Tiberge’s and Strizki’s vision for leaving a better planet for future generations is one shared by many people. But the price for having the ability to live off the grid today is not affordable for most working middle-class families. However, Strizki says the demand for his system will grow. The more systems he builds, the more refined the technology will become, and the cheaper it will be to produce and sell a system. His goal is to provide systems for everyone, but right now he is attracting customers from the wealthy and upper middle class and is meeting with potential customers from Hawaii and California, where there is a high concentration of wealth and plenty of sun. Hollywood celebrities have expressed an interest in his system.
“Right now it’s a matter of getting the numbers up,” he says. “This technology will get smaller and better with mass production, just like everything else. As with anything, as the technologies are refined, the prices go down. For now, we’re depending on the early adopters out there to take things to the next level, just like they did with big screen televisions.
“No one ever thought they could have a computer in their home. Now people have computers and cell phones. Today there is more power in cell phones than there was in the desktops that came out in the early 60s. This technology is scalable, and can even be developed at the utilities level with the right investment. In cases of multiple users, such as a neighborhood or condominium complex, the price of the system would reduce significantly,” he says. In terms of solar costs, Strizki remembers when the price was $10 per watt compared to today’s price of 50 cents per watt, and industry analysts project that prices will continue to drop.
Strizki finds a growing interest in hydrogen energy from the business world. “Every manned space mission since Apollo has used fuel cells for their drinking water, heat, and electricity,” he says. In addition to the U.S. space program, fuel cells are used in fork lift trucks and are used to back up data centers in places like Apple, telecommunication systems for the 911 setup, and critical loads for the military.
At a recent open house reception for De Tiberge’s house, visitors were impressed with the concept. Bruce Gage, a Coldwell Banker real estate broker, who also had recently toured Strizki’s property, said he was a believer in the hydrogen-solar approach.
Gage is planning to purchase Strizki’s system for his own home. He agrees that prices will go down as more systems are purchased and produced. “When I bought my first cell phone years ago, it cost me $2,000. Today you can get a cell phone practically for free when you purchase unlimited hours. Solar panels used to cost $500. Now you can get them for $100,” he says.
He adds that his real estate customers are increasingly asking about renewable energy for their homes and want to know how they can save on energy costs throughout the seasons. Another consideration is the resale value of the home, which is higher for energy efficient homes. In addition to real estate interests, Gage says he likes the fact that Strizki’s systems are produced in the U.S.
Thanks to Strizki’s efforts, today builders and architects can specify this technology and obtain the needed permits. Getting township approval for his solar-hydrogen home was no easy task, taking more than three years, he says. During the process, he was fined by the township for operating an “illegal hydrogen generation facility.”
But the township approval process was not the most difficult challenge he has faced. In the 1990s, the Department of Environmental Protection designated a stretch of his driveway as wetlands. After several exchanges between Strizki and the department, he was informed that he would have to move. Strizki says that he was told if he refused, he could be fined and jailed. Strizki did refuse, and the fight would end up costing him over $100,000 in legal and engineering fees, “my kids’ college money,” he says. The battle, covered extensively by New Jersey and national media, lasted four years before ending with Strizki as the victor.
Strizki sees the big utility and oil companies and their ties to governments as one of biggest challenges for solar-hydrogen power, saying that too many policies and decisions are based on these ties. Comparing oil with solar-hydrogen, he says, “Renewable energy isn’t something you have to ship from Saudi Arabia, protect from the Somali pirates, or truck from Texas. The horse and buggy had its day, fossil fuel has had its day. We’re entering into the hydrogen age.”
The safety of hydrogen has been a concern of the public ever since the Hindenburg crash over Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, but perceptions are changing, in part because of findings made by NASA scientist Addison Bain, who said that the other materials had contributed to the ignition of the blaze. Bain’s conclusion, as published in the July, 2000, American Physical Society News: “The source of the fire was the use of lacquers and metal-based paints on the outer hull and bladders, which were ignited by an electrical discharge.” The article finished with a comment from the American Physical Society, which previously had questioned hydrogen’s safety: “We stand corrected.”
A 2003 research paper published by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent, nonprofit applied research center based in Colorado, came to a similar conclusion. It was titled “Twenty Hydrogen Myths.”
For both De Tiberge and Strizki, doing the right thing for the environment and future generations matters as much as independence and saving money on energy bills.
Strizki has been passionate about renewable energy since 1998, when he accepted an invitation to help a group of Cinnaminson High School students with a race car project, a solar powered vehicle that would be raced in the Tour de Sol. He ended up helping them rebuild the car, and in the process learned something from them. “I learned the value of doing more with less,” he said, and that was when he decided to replace “everything fossil fuel” with renewable sources.
“We all have children and grandchildren who we want to leave the planet for. My goal in life is to give the gift of renewable energy to future generations, not just generations in the United States but worldwide,” he says. “We have the technology to make the planet better for generations to come. Taking energy from the wind and air makes sense. There’s no scorched earth with this technology. We don’t need to do fracking. The gas would be transported and sold. We’d get no benefit but we’d be taking on the liability. But with renewable energy, there are no wheels to well.”
When it comes to energy independence, the health of individuals and the environment, Strizki’s aspiration is no small matter. To further his vision he has founded a nonprofit resource center, the Hydrogen House Project, which he hopes will become “a worldwide beacon for renewable energy.” His mission: To educate the public while conducting research and development projects on clean, renewable energy technologies such as solar, hydrogen, fuel cells, and more.
One of his important communication tools is his website: www.Hydrogenhouseproject.org. Over the course of the next several years, he says, the Hydrogen House Project will be transformed into an interactive educational attraction featuring hands-on demonstrations of the latest in clean and renewable energy technologies. Meanwhile, the organization will continue to pursue research and development opportunities.
Currently the Hydrogen House Project offers two and four-hour tours which will guide visitors step-by-step through the process of developing a hydrogen house. Visitors will learn how the technology works and catch a glimpse of the various research and development projects taking place onsite. Small group tours last two hours with a requested donation of $200. Large group tours last four hours with a requested donation of $500.
The organization also offers presentations at schools and offices. It also offers internships for students or volunteers to gain real-world work experience that can prepare them for careers in renewable energy.
Visitors to the website have access to free videos and an opportunity to learn about several projects including the Joule Box portable charge station, H2 to Go, Hydra Mobile Generator & Water Purifier, and fuel cell cars, boats, planes, lawn mowers, and golf carts.
While overseeing the Hydrogen House Project, Strizki heads several companies, including Strizki Systems, Genmounts Solar Racking, and Renewable Energy Holdings. Prior to his current roles, he developed renewable energy projects as a project engineer with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, Office of Research and Technology. His projects included the variable message signs, an electric vehicle station car project, and two fuel cell vehicles: New Jersey Venturer, and New Jersey Genesis.
Before his tenure at DOT, he worked on hydrogen fuel cell and related technologies for several companies including Millennium Cell, Peugeot, and Duffy Boats.
A graduate of Rutgers University, Strizki is a former race car builder who grew up on his family’s tree farm in Ringoes. His father, Richard, worked for DOT and was the inventor of the breakaway road sign that detaches on impact and has saved many lives. His mother was the family homemaker and later became a nurse. Today Strizki enjoys his solar-hydrogen powered home with his wife and pets. The Hydrogen House Project is run by Strizki and his board, which includes his son, James, and his two daughters, Kathleen Snyder and Anna Coombs. Dan Arena is the lead technician.
While Strizki is uplifted by the growing support for renewable energy, and in particular, hydrogen-solar, he is well aware of the naysayers who contend that his system is inefficient and costly.
But if anything, the detractors spur him on. He quotes Thomas Edison on every page of his website: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Good news for the advocates of renewable hydrogen-solar energy, they have a seasoned tackler on their side.
Says Strizki, “If you can’t dream it, you can’t build it.”
The Hydrogen House Project, www.hydrogenhouseproject.org. Contact Mike Strizki at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-731-1990.