A ray of sunshine: Solar power makes strides in Florida

Construction is underway on the nation’s first solar-powered town, in a state just beginning to realize its potential.

For a state that gets 230 days of sunshine a year, Florida has long been in the Dark Ages when it comes to solar power. The state ranks as low as 17th in terms of solar energy output, despite ranking third in solar potential. But the outlook for that most obvious of renewable energies seems to be getting, well, sunnier by the day.

This week, Florida’s citizens voted by a sky-wide margin (73 percent to 27 percent) to approve a constitutional amendment that will provide significant tax breaks for commercial property owners who install solar panels. It will also allow leasing of solar energy: Going forward, landlords can sell solar power directly to tenants. Expect to see shiny panels sprout on the rooftops of apartment complexes and big-box stores from Pensacola to Miami.

But one Florida developer is going further than that, aiming to change the home-by-home, building-by-building paradigm. Syd Kitson, the chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners (and a former Green Bay Packer) is building an entire town that will draw most of its energy from the sun.

Breaking ground last fall, Babcock Ranch sits on 17,000 acres in rural Charlotte County, outside Fort Myers. By 2041, this ambitious planned community will house up to 50,000 residents who can stay cool, reheat chicken, Skype with relatives, and even head to the hardware store with the help of the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant. In Kitson’s vision (see rendering above), this sustainable town’s example might inspire large-scale changes in the way Americans live and work.

A series of hamlets, villages and neighborhoods, Babcock Ranch will have its own schools and a downtown district—already under construction—featuring six million square feet of retail, commercial, civic, and office space. Designed on a smart grid to optimize energy efficiency and lower utility costs, the town will make use of current and emerging technologies such as electric vehicles and solar-powered charging stations. And a system of shared, driverless vehicles will move people and goods throughout town.

Slated for completion next year, Phase 1 of construction includes 1,100 homes as well as the downtown district, which will feature a state-of-the-art wellness center, a market café, lakeside restaurant, and educational facilities, all connected by a system of walking trails.

20160422 FPL Babcock Ranch 0707.jpg

Members of the media toured the solar plant at Babcock Ranch on Earth Day in April. (Photo courtesy Babcock Ranch)

The entire development will be powered by the 74.5-megawatt-capacity FPL Babcock Solar Energy Center, being built in conjunction with Florida Power & Light on an adjacent 450-acre site. Excess power collected during the sunniest days will be pumped back into the electrical grid, to be stored for use on overcast days.

During nighttime hours, at least in the short term, the town’s power will be supplied by natural gas. Although natural gas is not a renewable resource, it emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide when burned than coal. Moreover, the new homeowners will also have the option to purchase rooftop solar panels—a process that, presumably, will become even easier thanks to the amendment passed this week.

From an environmental standpoint, these are all encouraging developments, showing that solar’s role is on the rise, and perhaps a more sustainable energy mix is just on the horizon.

This post was a collaboration between Suffolk Construction’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis and Content Writer Patrick Kennedy. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com and Patrick can be reached at pkennedy@suffolk.com or connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

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