Bruce Becker: Zero Energy Home Is 100% Worth It

Bruce Becker’s 2 master’s degrees from Yale — one in architecture, the other an MBA — led to his career as a sustainable architect/developer.

He’s created LEED Platinum buildings at 360 State Street in New Haven (with 500 units, it’s the largest apartment in Connecticut, and Hartford (the redevelopment of the Bank of America tower into 285 units).

360 State Street, New Haven. The train station is at lower right.

The renovation of his 1917 Compo Beach saltbox into a solar paneled, VRF powered zero-energy home may be Becker’s smallest project.

But it has big implications, he believes, as a blueprint for where Westport can — or, really, must — go in the crucial (and very near) future.

“I’m idealistic but pragmatic,” says Becker. He knows the importance of placing housing near train stations — “that’s where the state and region have to go” — but he also knows that suburbs like Westport won’t change overnight.

Most carbon emissions, he says, comes from driving, not buildings. But he’s doing what he can in both areas to reduce his own carbon footprint.

He’s had electric vehicles since 2011. And when he bought his Quentin Road property, he wondered whether a solar roof and batteries could provide all the energy needed for his house and 2 cars. (He’s also president of the Westport Electric Car Club.)

He removed his oil furnace and oil tank, replacing them with new generation high-efficiency VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) electric air source heat pumps for heating and cooling the house, eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

“The key to combating the climate crisis is electrifying everything — and making electricity from renewable sources,” Becker says.

“The technology exists today. And it’s economically advantageous.”

Then he ripped off his poorly insulated dark cedar roof, and foamed the cavity. His new, attractive and highly reflective roof virtually eliminates the need for air conditioning. Immediately, Becker’s energy requirement dropped by 70%.

He installed 67 solar panels on the flat section of his roof. When the sun is at its peak, they create 21 kw.

Bruce Becker’s home. Solar panels are barely visible.

Becker describes the benefit of net metering. He exports electricity to the grid in the summer, when utilities need it most. In the winter, when demand is lower, he draws it back out. It all balances out, he says.

Becker’s Tesla powerwalls store excess energy (14 kwh each) for backup power and load management. They also kick in automatically when the power fails.

Bruce Becker’s Tesla powerwalls.

A home energy analysis before all the work produced a Home Energy Rating System score of 253. “That’s failing,” Becker says.

Older homes are usually around 140. A new house built to code is about 100. An Energy Star homes is 85 or so.

Becker’s current HERS score is 19.

“You can take an old home, recycle it and make it green, efficient and sustainable,” Becker says.

“It’s not the norm. It takes a bit of initiative. But I’m happy to be a resource.”

Bruce Becker, with a “Westport Green Building Award.” 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Green Task Force chair David Mann hailed Becker for  “meaningfully contributing to a sustainable Westport, and furthering the goal of being a net-zero community by 2050.”

Every homeowner can do something, he notes. If a furnace needs replacement, “ask about VRF pumps. They’re less expensive, and cost less to operate. People sell what they’re always sold, like oil furnaces, so they might not mention it to you. But if they realize they might lose the sale, they’ll sell you one.”

Is there any downside to what he’s done?

“None,” Becker insists. “It’s good for me, and for the environment. It’s a rare win-win.”

Now he wants to see many other Westporters win too.

A before-and-after comparison of Bruce Becker’s energy consumption and costs.

18 responses to “Bruce Becker: Zero Energy Home Is 100% Worth It

  1. The least one can do is stop idling – I see so many folks sitting in their cars with the engine running for no apparent reason.

    • Stacie Waldman

      I agree. I see this at Compo beach every time I’m there. It’s so unnecessary and people should be ticketed for this.

  2. I’d like to see the math to show that “electrifying everything” is more efficient. Most electric power in CT is produced by burning natural gas, which loses at least 40% (in the newest, most efficient plants) of the energy as waste heat, and a further 5 or 6% is lost to resistance in transmission limdx.

    All other things being equal, would it not be more efficient, and produce less CO2, to burn that natural gas in a high efficiency furnace at the home?

    Insofar as peak electric demands coming in the summer vs. winter, isn’t that because most homes aren’t currently heated electrically. If everyone did as Mr. Becker suggested, would not winter peak electric demands be comparable to summer since heat pumps and A/C use electricity the same way.

    • Peter, I think the critcal sentence here is: “The key to combating the climate crisis is electrifying everything — and making electricity from renewable sources,” Becker says.

      I assume you are not opposed to shifting the making of electricity to renewable sources wherever possible.

      • Yep but changing power plants over to mostly non-fossil fuel energy won’t happen for many years – most likely after all of Mr. Becker’s costly equipment is worn out and needs to be replaced. By

        • Anyone today can select a 100% renewable energy supplier. And several are actually less expensive than the standard EverSource supply cost. No need to wait for the entire grid to be 100% free of fossil fuels.

          • Changing your energy supplier is just a paper transaction making
            no difference in the amount of fuel burned at power plants or C02 released.

            • Selecting a renewable energy supplier will increase demand (and therefore supply) of clean power. see:
              https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/buy-green-power

              • Multiple recent studies have proven the efficiency of “electrify everything.” While not specific to CT, RMI’s Electrification report (https://rmi.org/report-release-electrifying-buildings-for-decarbonization/) shows that for almost every type of new construction or existing building retrofit, replacing heating/propane fuel with heat pumps is cheaper than maintaining existing fossil fired appliances. The exception may be with customers who have existing natural gas fired appliances in particularly cold climates. Same goes for carbon. Electrification reduces carbon emissions in all but the coal heaviest states.
The New England region is summer peaking primarily due to electric AC load. Switching our heaters to electric may raise the winter peak…such is the reason some southeastern utilities are transforming to winter peaking as well.
We know that decarbonizing the electric grid makes decarbonizing other sectors, like buildings and transport, easier. As that is happening, we should work to remove fossil fuels from all other industries, buildings notably. And recent research suggests that electrifying buildings (above) and transportation (https://www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2018/03/14/charging-an-electric-vehicle-is-far-cleaner-than-driving-on-gasoline-everywhere-in-america/) is far cleaner from a carbon perspective. Plus, CT has a governor that campaigned on 100% clean energy, so it makes sense to push that goal while also working to decarbonize other sectors. Finally, I don’t think Bruce mentioned his stove, but it’s strange we burn gas in our kitchens, isn’t it? https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/opinion/climate-change-gas-electricity.html

  3. Admirable, but wonder what the true cost was to make all the changes? The only cost/investment factor in the chart appears insufficient to r&r the house roof, redo the domestic wiring, install the heat pump system, remove the old heating system, add the solar roof units and install the Tesla storage units, among just some of the many changes cited.

  4. I live in a modest antique residence that retains most of its original fabric. I’ve made meaningful and reasonable upgrades which do no damage to its value as a historic resource. But I’m not going to turn a giraffe into a goat just to feel better. And I’m quickly reaching my lifetime limit on exposure to the word “sustainable”.

    • Morley
      The point is we don’t have to make a choice between historic preservation and preservation of the planet. Both are possible and can be done cost effectively. Preservation and sustainability are the same thing, aren’t they?

      • Bruce,

        I feel that 18th, 19th and early to mid 20th structures of historic merit should generally be considered products of their time. Frog marching them to present day efficiency standards, in many (but certainly not all) cases causes real harm to their integrity. My general point is simply that there are higher objectives when one is considering proper stewardship of structures which possess good integrity as historic resources.

        As for the definition of the term “sustainability”, I cannot help you work out its precise meaning except to say that the word “preservation” as it is discussed here, is a well defined term. The Dept. of the Interior made sure of that some time ago. Personally, I currently regard the term “sustainable” as one of those faddish words which means whatever the user wishes it to mean. Worse – again in my view – it often seems to be the go-to ingredient in tedious virtue shaming efforts which confront us like squeege men these days.

  5. Dermot Meuchner

    This is great for homeowners if your filthy rich. The masses will never see this benefit because it is completely out of their financial reach. America!

    • Ross Solar and other PV installers will install and lease solar panels to you with no out of pocket cost – and you end up with a lower electricity cost from day one, including the lease payment.

  6. Philip Perlah

    This shows a nice return on investment. However, since the solar panels and batteries have a limited life, I think a more accurate measure of the economics would be an investment amortization calculation (which is how I track my purchase of solar panels in a farm). I assume I took out a HELOC for the after tax credit price of the solar system and use the monthly electric savings as the “payment”.

  7. Michael Calise

    Energy conservation in the end comes down to the user. Do we really need AC and overheated houses , Oversize refrigerators and freezers, Electric gismos everywhere we turn. enumerable plastic containers and unnecessary throwaways Simply put we are a wasteful society and covering up our penchant for waste by jumping through the hoops of innovation is a subterfuge. Not to say of course that we should not innovate towards better more efficient systems but that it all starts with our daily habits and how we live our lives.

    • Over the last 10 years the solar and battery technology have rapidly evolved and will continue to accelerate driving down costs and increasing adoption.

      New comparisons show leasing of some EVs to be cheaper then leasing internal combustion engine vehicles when looking at the total cost of ownership.

      As radar, lidar, sensors, and cameras become standard in EV’s insurance rates will be reduced as the cars are safer to drive and eventually driverless..for those who are ready.

      By financing solar and solar storage you take your monthly utility savings offset by the sun, and transfer those dollars to an appreciating asset (solar/storage) that will add value to your home, reduce your carbon footprint, reduce strain on the grid and insulate you from utility rate hikes.

      Your Home and car powered by the sun!

      These new emerging technologies and consumer shift ignite the 4th industrial revolution and create infrastructure/job opportunities, provide health benefits, save the consumer money, and provide a better experience while taking on climate change.

      Kudos Bruce for the forward thinking. Excitiing to see CT and other states looking to accelerate and educate on the opportunities this infrastructure brings.

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