September 2007   Vol. XXII   No. 9   ISSN 1080-8019
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September 2007

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Off-Grid Solar-Hydrogen System Powers Washington State Island Vacation Home

STUART ISLAND, WA – Living on an island is fun and it’s many people’s dream, but there are distinct downsides when it comes to civilization’s amenities city folk take for granted:

“We were tired of hauling banks of 120 lb. batteries to our remote, off-the-grid island home,” says the opening sentence of the home page of the “Stuart Island Energy Initiative” website. It describes an ongoing three-year-old retrofit of a splendid 1,800 sq. ft., 6-room summer vacation home with a completely independent solar-hydrogen power system on this small 5-by-1 mile island off Washington’s coast - in fact, closer to British Columbia, some 15 miles from Victoria.

More importantly to team leader and committed environmentalist Stephen H. Friend, “we were tired of blowing CO2 into the atmosphere by running a diesel generator” (actually, it ran on propane).

Friend is an MD PhD who in the 1990s founded Rosetta Inpharmatics, a Seattle biotech company specializing in novel technology for testing anti-cancer drugs. He sold Rosetta to Merck in 2001 where he is now a senior vice president, based in Philadelphia. He started the Stuart project in 2004 with two other island dwellers, Jason Lerner, owner of Waldron Power and Light Co., who builds alternative energy systems in the San Juan Islands, and Charles Delahunt, an experienced builder and constructor who is in charge of the project’s hydrogen systems as well as the website.

Project Started in 2004

Long interested in the concept of a hydrogen economy and fuel cells, the three bit the bullet in 2004 after a fuel cell conference in Denver. It took them about two years to get the basic system up and running, the relatively slow pace dictated by the fact that everything had to be hauled by boat several miles across Haro Strait from British Columbia or some other circuitous route across open water.

Last month, Friend and his team finished the, so far, latest refinement to the setup, conversion of the existing 24 Volt system. It had been replaced once in the house since it was built 20 years ago, to 48 Voltwhich is a better match for a new 1 kW PEM fuel cell, made by ReliOn Inc. Spokane, WA, that replaced an earlier Reli-On model, making the whole system less complex and more of a load follower rather than a battery charger. With 48 Volt, “we could actually get more watts,” Friend told H&FCL. “We converted to gain efficiency.” (It’s actually more complicated than this; details at www.siei.org/24vs48volts.html).

The fuel cell, designed for stationary and telecommunications applications, is about 40% efficient. About 50% heat can be used in cogeneration but since it’s a summer home, it is simply discarded. Another 10% is lost to internal loads such as fans.

The fuel cell isn’t always running. Its output is sent to a battery bank which acts as an energy buffer - Friend uses the term energy “slush fund” - from which power is drawn to run the house appliances. Usually the fuel cell is turned on when the house loads draw down the battery voltage too far, according to the website.


It doesn’t look like 21st century high-tech, but it is: Stephen Friend’s (inset) solar hydrogen house on Stuart Island off Washington State (actually closer to British Columbia). The only give-away is the satellite wi-fi dish antenna on the upper floor.
The other new wrinkle installed last month is a monitoring system and remote control platform including a laptop computer to collect data from the island power system and transmit them anywhere via satellite-based Internet connection and a DirecWay (HughesNet) dish antenna. There is also a webcam monitoring the electrolyzers, and a ceiling-mounted hydrogen sniffer is linked to the fuel cell and electrolyzers which would be shut down automatically in case of trouble. For now, the laptop is usually off, Lerner says: The data monitoring system which logs 5 AC channels and 4 DC channels works well but there are problems with showing the data on the website, something they expect to resolve by this fall.

The Basic Setup

These new additions complement the existing basic setup:

  • a 1,400 W PV solar panel array;
  • a pair of small 1,200 W HOGEN GC PEM desktop electrolyzers originally designed for laboratory use, made by Proton Energy, Inc., Wallingford, CT (H&FCL Aug. 02). They were not the first choice, according to the website, because of their relatively low efficiency (18%), one-hour warmup time during which they do not produce hydrogen but draw electricity, and there were as other issues as well, but that was all the team could afford at the time;
  • a battery bank consisting of eight Dyno L-16 batteries;
  • a 3,600 W Outback inverter;
  • a 500 gal. above-ground propane-type hydrogen storage tank that holds about 90 kWh worth of hydrogen at 200 psi - the pressure at which the HOGENs generate hydrogen and the same used in distributing propane in bottles. Because of hydrogen’s reactivity, all pipes and fittings are made of stainless steel.

A schematic diagram of how all the various pieces fit together is at http://www.siei.org/mainpage.html.

The grand total outlay for the entire system - fuel cell, electronics, tank, PV panels, electrolyzer - was about $60,000, Friend told H&FCL, a little more than one-tenth the conversion costs of reportedly $500,000 for the Hopewell, NJ house of hydrogen pioneer and entrepreneur Mike Strizki (H&FCL Jan. 04, Nov. 06). Friend’s team paid for it themselves, with no outside - government or foundation - funding.

Friend is convinced the cost should come down “easily to under $10,000 once the equipment becomes off-the-shelf.” Solar panels, tanks and piping, for example, are already there, but fuel cells and electrolyzers are not.

One reason Friend and his partners embarked on the project was to show that private individuals can overcome bureaucratic obstacles. “Nobody had gotten private permits before, so this is an educational reason, not a business,” he says (Permitting was also a big issue in getting Strizki’s house up and running).

More importantly perhaps, he and his partners wanted to demonstrate that even today, fuel cells have an advantage and that it’s “not about the future.

“We wanted to show that solar energy is a viable energy source even if it is intermittent on a remote island IF you have a way to convert it into a storable energy source,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Hence the electrolyzers, the 500 gallon H2 storage tank and the ReliOn fuel cell.

“We hope this will allow solar to be a more widely distributed energy source for remote islands and properties that today rely on propane generators to enjoy the environment,” Friend said. Towards that end, the Stuart Island Energy Initiative plans an open house next July; details will be posted later on their website.

Contacts and details: Stephen Friend, apathseeker@hotmail.com; Jason Lerner, wapalco@gmail.com; Charles Delahunt, cdelahunt@siei.org; website, http://www.siei.org.