Bruce Becker, a green architect whose Becker + Becker firm operates in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, is straightforward on the reason his innovative designs are partially hydrogen powered.
“I got into fuel cells because of my desire to minimize the environmental impact of the buildings I create,” Becker said. “I realized that buildings are only as green as the electricity they use. If fossil fuels are burned in the process of supplying a building with electricity, that building increases the levels of particulate pollution that have harmful health effects. So at the inception of each project we review various ways to enhance the environmental impacts from our developments, including using geothermal, solar and fuel cells as a source of energy.”
Fuel cells have made the grade at all of Becker’s recent projects, including a former bank building (now rental apartments) near the state capitol in downtown Hartford; a 32-story residential building in New Haven; and the multiple-use Octagon building on Roosevelt Island in New York.
These are large stationary cells the size of shipping containers, and they produce 400 kilowatts of electricity or more, as well as 24/7 “cogenerated” heat (a natural byproduct of fuel cells) and hot water for the tenants. Becker’s units are made by Doosan, formerly sold under the ClearEdge Power and UTC Fuel Cell brand names. (United Technologies has a long history in fuel cells, and built units for early space missions.)
Stationary fuel cells have become a large and growing commercial market, and complement hydrogen-powered cars, which are rolling out at the same time. The first hydrogen cars in the U.S. will be sold in California, but an early fuel-cell car station network for the Northeast is expected to be announced soon, supported by Toyota and others.
For the building projects, Becker is able to tap into both federal and state incentives for fuel cells, and through “submetering” charge his tenants for their electric use.
For his New Haven project, opened in 2010, the $1.875 million cost of the 60,000-pound fuel cell was offset by a $985,000 state grant, a federal tax credit for 30 percent of the installation cost, and sales of renewable energy credits that amount to approximately $90,000 per year. He says the economics work out, with $295,000 in annual avoided energy costs by the landlord. The payback period, with the incentives, is only five years. Even without the subsidies it’s 13 years.
Becker says his fuel cells (which have a 20-year lifespan) create just one ounce of pollution per every thousand kilowatt-hours of electricity generated—versus 25 pounds through traditional combustion generation. “Thirty-five thousand fuel cells could take all multi-family buildings off the grid,” he said. Unused electricity can be sold back to the grid. And tenants at his Connecticut apartment complexes pay significantly reduced utility bills.
Despite the potential, however only 0.8 percent of electricity that goes to multi-family housing now is generated renewably.
Becker, who drives a Tesla Model S P90D, is also a big believer in electric cars, and has a row of 10 Level II chargers at his Hartford property, as well as the region’s only Level III DC fast charger. In this case, then, fuel cells and electric cars are working hand in hand for a clean energy loop.
The Hartford project, including a 400-kilowatt fuel cell and EV charging, also has a host of other green features, including solar shades, LED lighting, low-E windows, occupancy sensors, solar panels and low-flow showerheads and faucets.
“My goal has been to create models for sustainable development that can if replicated, will make the planet healthier,” Becker said.