March 21, 2018

HAROLD BUBIL: The power is on at Babcock Ranch

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Saving, generating and storing energy is the plan at Babcock Ranch, “the nation’s first solar-powered city,” in southeastern Charlotte County.

Developer Syd Kitson’s 18,000-acre green utopia is coming together according to plan, in partnership with FPL, which has set up a huge farm of solar-energy panels, and a number of house-building companies, which are selling about two dozen energy-efficient residences a month since the marketing effort started in earnest in November 2017.

The master-planned Babcock Ranch had its official grand opening on March 10, a day after FPL showed off its new Solar Energy Center viewing tower and 10-megawatt battery storage facility a couple miles north of Babcock Ranch’s walkable town center. The press event was held under sunny skies; it was cloudy during the grand opening. But that’s what the battery storage is for — days when the sunlight is spotty.

And, in February, scientist Tim Rumage and futurist David Houle of the Sarasota-based “This Spaceship Earth” foundation named Babcock Ranch as its second “Crew-Friendly City.” (Sarasota won the first such award.) That follows the TSE philosophy, originally credited to sociologist Marshall McLuhan: “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

Or, as the inspirational visionary Buckminster Fuller put it in the 1960s, “We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.”

Rumage wrote on the This Spaceship Earth website recently, “Babcock Ranch is the best example of experiential design for real-life daily-living anywhere that I know of.”

In an interview after the short ceremony on Babcock Ranch’s town square, he said, “We are identifying communities that have changed their process of thinking about how you design or retrofit cities, and giving them awards for doing that, calling them a ‘crew-conscious’ city.”

Said Kitson, “This is a great honor. It means people are paying attention to what we are doing. It is not just that a new town is happening, it is how this new town is coming out of the ground.”

Pointing to Babcock Ranch’s integration of solar power, environmentally friendly planning, bioswales, rain gardens, walkable streets, green-built houses and commercial buildings, farm-to-table restaurants, and autonomous, electric vehicles, Kitson said, “When you are part of a community like this, it becomes part of you. We are taking action rather than talking about it.

“I have received countless calls from peers across the country and from around the world” who are considering similar development models.

FPL’s $15 million experiment in solar power storage at Babcock Ranch is impressive, indeed. Each of the 10 large gray steel units, elevated above the flood plain, can store 1 megawatt of power and discharge for 4 hours.

Nearby, two fields totaling 440 acres have 330,000 solar panels that, at peak, generate 74.5 megawatts of power — enough for 15,000 homes.

On partly cloudy days, the power output will dip when the sun is obscured. So the new battery storage system will kick in to keep the power output steady, said Matt Valle, FPL’s vice president for development. “It would keep the discharge rate of the solar plant up through that (cloud) event,” he said.

“The other thing is the batteries store the energy from noontime and push it to later in the day, when we most need it.”

The solar installation generates more power than Babcock Ranch — the first residents are just moving in this winter and spring — needs at this time, so the surplus goes into the electric power grid. As the community grows, it will absorb more and more of the power. Eventually, the solar facility, which has an expected lifespan of at least 30 years, will have to be expanded to serve all 20,000 homes expected to be build there.

It’s all experimental, as FPL searches for the right combination of technologies, in a rapidly changing industry, to make large-scale solar farms with battery storage viable. Valle notes it would take about 20 such solar plants to equal the output of a natural gas power plant, which generates a steady flow of power day and night.

“We have done it (battery storage) here in a meaningful-enough way where we can look at how it is interacting with the solar and optimize for future designs,” Valle said. “In 2019 and 2020, we will have another 300 megawatts of solar projects under way. What we are learning here is going to directly be applied to those projects that are in the design phase right now.

“Batteries, just like solar panels, are getting cheaper and cheaper. We see solar being paired with batteries, and those two systems optimized together. You would have integrated storage, not solar as a stand-alone project.”

The author is former real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune, now semi-retired. Email: