Can a New 'Solar City' Make Suburbia Green?
BABCOCK RANCH, FLORIDA—Like a lot of Floridians, Syd Kitson loves the sun. But his passion is mainly for the energy it feeds to his new development, Babcock Ranch, which bills itself as the country’s first solar-powered city, located 15 miles northeast of Fort Myers and close to Florida’s southwest coast.
This particular day in March turned out to be a milestone for Kitson, an NFL guard-turned-property developer who has been chasing his vision of a sustainable society for more than a decade. As he surveyed the 440 acres of solar panels already in place, on land that he donated to Florida Power & Light, he said he just learned that the utility company plans to double the size of its energy farm. “FPL is going to add another 75 megawatts, so we’re going to have a total of 150 megawatts,” Kitson said.
His ultimate plan is for a solar-powered city of 19,500 homes with a downtown, schools, restaurants, shopping and leisure facilities, and more than 50 miles of nature trails for walkers, runners, and cyclists. By full build-out, he hopes Babcock Ranch will have about 50,000 residents.
The FPL solar farm is a cornerstone of the Babcock Ranch masterplan, and the 14 months between the farm’s October 2015 groundbreaking and its 343,000 panels coming online last December reflect the quick pace of the development as a whole.
It was only in January that the first residents began moving in. This month, a health, wellness, and lifestyle center opened in Founder’s Square, the development’s town center, with medical offices, a gym, and a swimming pool. That followed the rollout of a K-8 charter school with a STEAM-based curriculum; a lakeside gastropub serving locally-grown seed-to-table organic food; and a cavernous co-working space called The Hatchery, with options from walk-up desk rentals to serviced offices.
At weekends, electric self-driven shuttles ferry residents and visitors around as part of testing by the autonomous transportation company Transdev. There are plans to expand the pilot to an Uber-style on-demand service.
At a cursory glance, Babcock appears little different from numerous other planned communities around Florida. It has single-family detached houses arranged into neighborhoods, and the seven homebuilders that partnered with Kitson offer a range of models from two to five bedrooms, priced from the $190,000s to more than half a million dollars. The sales pitch rests on their high-tech and green features. These are Alexa-controlled smart homes with 1-gigabit fiber internet and wiring for electric cars in every garage; kitchens and laundry rooms piped for natural gas cooktops, ranges, and dryers; and metal roofs to reduce heating and cooling costs.
Additionally, homeowners are encouraged to grow vegetables in community gardens, landscaping is limited to native plants (with turf covering no more than 30 percent of yard space), and all irrigation water is reclaimed.
Kitson describes Babcock Ranch as “a living laboratory,” with energy self-sufficiency at its core. All public and commercial buildings with good exposure have roofs covered with solar panels, and solar “trees” are dotted around the public areas to bolster the power supply and provide recharge stations for visitors’ cell phones, tablets, and laptops.
What you won’t see are solar panels on the roofs of most houses. Residents are hooked up to FPL’s grid in the same way, and billed at the same rates, as any other of the utility’s customers. “For us to truly be sustainable and a solar-powered town, we absolutely have got to do it on a utility-scale basis, period,” Kitson said. “Solar power comes to us first, and the excess goes into the grid. I can’t see how that’s not a huge win for everybody.”
Some outside analysts believe that Kitson’s pursuit of that utility-scale solar is the key to the long-term viability of the project. “In the future, we’re going to see almost all of our new developments powered by renewable energy, and to the extent this is a model for the future, especially in Florida, it’s a good thing,” said Ed McMahon, senior fellow for sustainable development and environmental policy at the Urban Land Institute.
Even before the upcoming solar-field expansion, Babcock Ranch is generating more electricity than it needs, Kitson said, and in a further innovation now has the capacity to store some of it. Ten single-megawatt batteries that became operational earlier this year on the western edge of the solar field—and also slated for future expansion—can store power for four hours, allowing a stable discharge during cloudy spells, or to “reserve” energy from sunny afternoons for peak evening demand.
The town’s buildings, constructed to match or exceed the latest county codes, soaked up everything the furious 2017 hurricane season had to offer. “During Irma, the eye of the storm came right over us,” Kitson said. “We did just fine, and we’re 30 feet above sea level so we didn’t flood. Sure, there were a few trees down, but we just picked them right back up because we’d just planted them.”
Kitson said the initial planning and design of the town was a community effort. In the mid-2000s, his team held meetings in community halls, city offices, and even at late-night social gatherings around Charlotte County to discuss what kind of town local people would want to live in, or at least visit. “It was [that] input that established the principles that continue to guide every planning decision,” he said. Several architecture and planning firms collaborated to shape the new town, including Looney Ricks Kiss, Harvard Jolly, and Kimley-Horn.
The master plan was approved in 2006, but the project was put on hold through the economic downturn of the late 2000s, which Kitson admitted was “less of a curveball, more of a boulder.”
Babcock Ranch is still in its infancy. Only about 20 families have taken up residence so far, a number that’s expected to grow to about 100 by the end of this year as more new homes become ready for occupancy. The Babcock Ranch Neighborhood School already has 156 students (who live outside the town). Shannon Treece, the principal, says the development growing up around the school provides hands-on, real-life lessons in environmental stewardship.
“We are in a place that … just evokes that spirit of innovation and that engagement of people,” Treece said. “It’s easy to open a textbook and read and answer questions. But project-based learning has a really specific driving question, and it always has a community-partner piece as well, which is, ‘How is it going to change the community we’re in?’ That’s the connection to here.”
With guidance from the chef of the Tap and Table, Babcock’s gastropub, students aced a recent solar cook-off tournament against other local schools. They harvested ingredients from their own community garden and created a three-course teriyaki meal. The students also track how much energy the school consumes by reading data from a solar tree in their playground.
When a larger school building opens in August, there will be twice as many children, teachers, and staff. Ultimately, there are plans for eight schools from pre-K to high school, with enrollment open to any child who qualifies to attend public school in Charlotte County.
Two likely future students are the three-year-old son and newborn daughter of Matt Angerer. Angerer rents an office in The Hatchery for his online business, and can’t wait to move his young family to Babcock when their home is ready in September.
“What better situation than having a home here and office space to grow my company and my family?” he said. “I’m an early adopter. I believe in technological innovation, but I also think we should leverage technology to help the environment and sustainability.”
Angerer said that everything at Babcock Ranch “fit the bill for us, including the school. They’re focusing on the family core, a comfortable and safe place to bring your children. (That is, apart from the alligators, which are “everywhere,” he said.)
Local criticism of the development so far has focused on the environmental impacts of its footprint. When Kitson bought the 91,000-acre working ranch in 2006 for more than $500 million, it was failing as a business; cattle ranching, alligator farming, the raising of crops including watermelons, and even rock mining and eco-tourism were no longer money-spinners for the Babcock family. Yet because of the ongoing stewardship of the land, it was in good condition.
After the purchase, Kitson immediately sold 73,000 acres, or about 80 percent of it, to the state of Florida for preservation, with the remaining 18,000 acres, spanning Charlotte and Lee counties, set for development over the next 20 years.
At a meeting of the Lee County commission in February, Kitson won approval for a land-use change from agricultural to planned development, and got a green light for construction of Babcock’s southern section (everything else so far has been in Charlotte County). Some environmentalists spoke out.
Carl Veaux, vice president of the Cape Coral Wildlife Trust, accused commissioners of “ripping the word ‘rural’ right out of the heart of Lee County,” according to the News-Press. “This is the most beautiful parcel of land on Babcock Ranch, and they’re going to develop it.”
Kitson wants his critics to see the town firsthand before passing judgment. “They think they’ll come in and [it’ll be] like George Jetson, but it’s not. It’s an old-town feeling with all of those modern conveniences and technology of today.”
He acknowledges that some will question the choices that were made for Babcock Ranch on environmental grounds, and whether it can call itself fully sustainable when, for example, residents still need cars to commute to jobs in other towns, and the housing stock is larger detached homes rather than higher-density units.
His answer is that he has made a laboratory out of a place where traditional models of community and family life are central. New ideas can be developed and tested at Babcock Ranch, and expanded gradually toward sustainability, without wholesale changes that would be too radical for many people.
“Americans are not going to go from one car for every driver to no cars for every household overnight.”
“Americans are not going to go from one car for every driver to no cars for every household overnight,” Kitson said. “We start by making the cars just one option for getting around. When people can walk, bike, catch a shuttle, use a handheld device to summon an autonomous vehicle, or utilize a shared vehicle service for trips off-site, they will quickly realize they don’t really need their own car.”
“What we are creating,” he continued, “is a suburban–urban environment with everything in walking distance, and [we’re] working continuously to bring more jobs within our town footprint to achieve the goal of a real, multi-generational town where people live, work, and play.”
McMahon believes that solar power, for Babcock, is the market differentiator that large, out-of-town developments need these days to prompt people to move there, as well as an environmental good. “It’s a greenfield site; everybody has to drive there from somewhere else, [and] there’s energy used in building the site and getting to it and from it,” he conceded. “So it’s not completely carbon-neutral in that sense. But as we like to say at the Urban Land Institute, ‘It’s better to be half right than all wrong.’”
In the future, McMahon continued, “the most successful communities in Florida are going to be ones that are walkable, where you can reduce your transportation. There’s no place that’s probably perfect, but all these things are steps in the right direction.”
For Richard Kinley and his wife Robin, Babcock’s first residents, who moved into their house in January from Atlanta, the development is living up to its promise so far. “It feels like you’re gaining good karma, living here,” said Richard Kinley, a semi-retired medical professional.
“We go days without needing air conditioning, because homes are built to green standards and are well insulated. The metal roof helps decrease costs. I also have an electric car charging in the garage, so I’m using solar energy to drive around the state,” he said. “We want to live here because it encourages a lifestyle we want to take on. It’s nice to live in a community where like-minded people are moving.”
All of which is music to Kitson’s ears. “If I come back in 20 years,” he said, “and see families, empty nesters, and retirees all mingling together; autonomous vehicles taking people from place to place; kids using technology outdoors; a respect for nature where the air is clean and the water is pure—that those things we talked about from Day One have come to fruition—then it will all have been worth it.”