Welcome to Babcock Ranch: America’s First Solar-Powered Town
The Florida city bills itself as a utopia for the environmentally conscious. After decades of planning, people are finally starting to move in.
Syd Kitson is an ex-NFL guard for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. He's also a real estate developer and the hopeful, optimistic developer of Babcock Ranch, the first almost entirely solar-powered town in the country.
Kitson has been planning the development of this southwest Florida community for more than a decade. In 2006, he purchased the Babcock Preserve from the Babcock family and almost immediately sold 73,000 acres -- 80 percent of the land -- back to the state to retain its nature preservation status. For the remaining 20 percent of the land, he hatched an ambitious plan.
“It’s going to be a thriving community, with several thousand people living here,” Kitson says of his vision for the town, located just outside Fort Myers. “I want to be driving down the road [one day] in an autonomous vehicle and see people walking, riding bikes, eating at our farm-to-table restaurant, running businesses, kids walking to school.”
The way Kitson imagines it, the town will eventually house up to 50,000 residents in 19,500 homes -- almost 100 percent powered by solar energy. To that end, Kitson donated 440 acres of land to a Florida power utility, which outfitted it with solar panels that generate 75 megawatts of electricity. Soon, the utility will generate 150 megawatts. On average, each megawatt is enough to power 164 homes.
The panels are hooked up to the main grid, so that any excess power can be used by other utility customers outside of Babcock Ranch. Currently, Kitson says, Babcock Ranch is putting more energy into the grid than it’s taking out.
"I can’t see how that’s not a huge win for everybody,” Kitson told CityLab.
The homes themselves are also directly hooked up to the utility's grid, allowing them to have power during evening hours when the sun is down.
People began moving there in January, living in small neighborhoods filled with houses still under construction. Jim and Donna Aveck were two of the city’s first buyers. They moved into their newly built home in mid-January, more than a decade after hearing Kitson present his vision for a solar-powered city.
“All the way back in 2006, Jim and I left that meeting absolutely in love with the vision. For 12 years, we’ve been looking forward to this coming to fruition,” says Donna Aveck.
Crews first broke ground on the town in 2015, but Kitson says it would have been earlier if not for the financial crisis. About 20 families have so far moved their belongings in, with about 100 expected by the end of the year. In 20 years, when the land is fully populated, Kitson plans to incorporate.
Babcock Ranch doesn't have all the features of a typical American city, but it does already have a public school, which currently enrolls 156 students (all of whom currently live outside the town), a gym and a community swimming pool, a gastropub that serves locally-grown organic food, and a co-working space.
The town has also started testing a driverless bus network. Kitson hopes that will eventually will be a major mode of transportation for the town’s residents.
Every home is outfitted with the fastest internet available, and metal roofs are installed for temperature control (a necessity during hot and humid Florida summers). All the vegetation is native, and all the irrigation water is reclaimed.
Kitson wants to prove sustainable development is not only possible in the state of Florida but also economical. He says installation of the fiber optic cables, for example, added no extra cost because they were able to lay them down at the same time they were building out the rest of the city.
“When you look at Florida, we have 1,000 people a day moving into the state. By 2030, there will be 26 million people living here,” he says. "If we’re going to grow, we have to grow the right way. Our greatest asset in Florida is our natural resources, and we have to preserve them.”