Babcock Ranch, a "solar" city

Babcock Ranch, a "solar" city

Arianna Pescini
The USA witnesses the creation of the first entirely solar powered urban center. The first dwellings will be ready next spring, in a watershed project for a future focussed on clean energy, where American companies hope to lead the way

Babcock Ranch could be seen to be the ideal solar city. It is the emblem of the US investments in solar power, and will be a reality at the beginning of 2017. Situated 20 km from the city of Fort Myers, Florida, Babcock Ranch will become the first town entirely powered by solar panels, thanks to a 74.5 MW plant that, in case of lack of sun, will be integrated with a natural gas system amongst the "cleanest" in the world. The project was started up ten years ago with the purchase by tycoon Syd Kitson of some 50 thousand hectares of land in Charlotte County, 250 km northwest of Miami. According to analysts, at the time the business owner spent 500 million dollars. Thirty thousand hectares were sold to the State of Florida, which turned them into a nature reserve; a further 18 thousand hectares host the sites of what will be an environmentally friendly and sustainable oasis for 50 thousand dwellers.

Human and environmental scale

#BabcockRanch will be the first town enterily powered by #solar panels, thanks to a 74.5 MW plant

At Babcock Ranch, by 2026, more than 700 condominiums and more than 900 detached houses, surrounded by vast green areas, ponds, fountains, tree-lined avenues will be built. The first 1,100 apartments, whose cost ranges between $200,000 and $900,000, will be handed over in early 2017, and in three years 42 sports fields and 1,500 hotel rooms will be created. Everything has been designed to be "human-friendly", with spaces dedicated to socializing and the absence of barriers or fences, and especially lots of green: the few vehicles (strictly electric or hybrid), the endless cycle and walking trails (50 miles), the street lighting, which will be entrusted to battery panels recharged during daylight; as well as white water recovery plant, where wastewater from showers and sinks will go to irrigate of parks and gardens. Each owner can decide whether to install solar panels on their roof and sell the excess energy through a smart grid. The challenge is to create clean energy over and beyond required consumption: "The utility-scale system is very important, both in terms of reliability and economy," explains Lisa Hall, who looks after external relations of "Kitson & Partners", the company leading the project. In this way we will have zero net energy consumption for all Babcock Ranch dwellers at no extra costs. Each building will comply with energy efficiency standards, and citizens will pay a lot less compared to the average rates of traditionally built houses." The new town seems to be able to develop bypassing the problems that have so far limited the spread of solar power: "We are eliminating economic barriers which have rendered the systems poorly accessible," continues Hall, "this is the turning point. Another difficulty in the sector is storage of resources. Babcock Ranch could constitute a “living experiment” for those companies that are seeking to develop energy storage systems for use after dark. The company "Florida Power and Light", as well as that of the "Solar City," have installed two 75 MW plants in the southeast, for a total of one million photovoltaic panels.

At Babcock Ranch, by 2026, more than 700 condominiums and more than 900 detached houses, surrounded by vast green areas, ponds, fountains, tree-lined avenues will be built.

A booming business

In Florida alone there are more than 430 companies in the solar power business; over the next five years another 2315 MW of power will be implemented, which will allow the State to leap to ninth place in the US national solar energy production ratings. The entire United States are experiencing the upswing: according to SEIA ("Solar Energy Industries Association") data, in 2015 31.6 GW were installed, and another 14 GW will be in place by the end of 2016. Also in 2015, sector revenue reached 22 billion; employment rates in the sector surpassed the gas-oil sector at the same time, likewise the number of start-ups and projects implemented. In the first six months of this year a system was activated every 82 seconds. A result that was possible thanks to two basic factors: the heavy drop in costs (the price of a solar panel has gone from 4.00 dollars to 0.65 cents per watt in eight years) and federal incentives, that via tax credits make 30 per cent of solar system expenditure tax deductible. The savings in terms of the environment so far are indeed remarkable: 37 million tonnes less CO2, which is equivalent to removing 7.8 million cars from the roads and to planting as many as 956 million trees. SEIA figures and the reality of Babcock Ranch bode well for what could be a revolution in the field of the electricity and renewable energy industries: "We hope that in the near future other solar cities will rise up - concludes Hall - When we began to talk about the project, almost ten years ago, the problems to be addressed were certainly higher. The technology and the market are moving forward, today panel or CSP powered systems are much more competitive compared to fossil fuel plants, more efficient and more economical."