July 16, 2018

How A Former Football Star Is Building An All-Solar City

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

by Gillian Neimark

July 11, 2018

Just 15 miles northeast of Fort Myers, Florida, a massive array of glinting solar panels — 350,000 of them — stretch across land the size of 200 football fields. This futuristic array heralds the dawn of America’s all solar-powered city: Babcock Ranch. The new planned community, which just began to see residents moving in this year, comes complete with Alexa-powered smart homes offering 1-gigabit fiber internet, 50 miles of nature trails, community gardens, a K-8 charter school, farm-to-table organic food, and electric shuttles. The entire 17,000-acre property promises the kind of ground-up planning that can make suburbia green and sustainable.

This futuristic Eden is the brainchild of football player Syd Kitson, a former NFL lineman with the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, who is now chairman and CEO of his own Florida real estate company, Kitson & Partners. He bought the 91,000-acre ranch in 2006 and then immediately sold 73,000 acres to the state of Florida for preservation — the largest single land acquisition for preservation in Florida history. Kitson also donated 440 acres to Florida Power & Light Company, which spent over 100 million installing their solar farm. He then worked with planners to develop the remaining acres. 500 residents are expected by the end of this year, and a total of 19,500 homes will be built over the next two decades.

The ultimate goal, according to Kitson, is a multigenerational town where everything is in walking distance, bolstered by an electric vehicle autonomous transportation system. That system will be accessed through an app, and the vehicles will shuttle residents anywhere in the community. Residents will also have easy access to free wi-fi everywhere, as well as the ability to roam the 73,000 acres of state conservation land that now border Babcock on three sides. All irrigation will use gray water. Residents will be hooked up to FPL grid the way any other utility customer would be. They will also be billed the same rates as other customers. There are currently 10 solar batteries installed to bank excess power, along with solar panels on many roofs and even solar “tees.”

If the community thrives, it’ll be the one of the first truly low-carbon, “new urbanism” community. It could become an effective model for a sustainable future. “This community is a unique opportunity to really implement sustainable technology in a practical way,” says Haris Alibašić, of the University of West Florida, and author of the new book, Sustainability and Resilience Planning for Local Governments. “Cities around the world have started adopting 100% renewable energy targets, but it’s both intriguing and encouraging to see this happening from a developer.”

Babcock Ranch is not alone in its emphasis on sustainability and a low-carbon footprint; half a dozen cities have already met their “100% renewable energy” targets using solar, wind, and hydropower, according to the Sierra Club. And many more have made commitments to be fully renewable in the next few decades. But Babcock Ranch is a novel planned community that has built sustainability into its development — unlike other popular Florida “new urbanism” ventures — such as Seaside, a community near Panama City, and Celebration, a Disney-built community near Orlando.

The only caveat, Alibašić says, is that he would like to see such communities include affordable and low-income housing in their sustainable design plans. “I think the ultimate key to long term sustainability is attracting people from diverse incomes and backgrounds,” he says.

For now, the first residents have moved in, and early reports are enthusiastic. Retirees Donna and Jim Aveck, report that “we absolutely love it, it’s very peaceful and friendly.” There are lots of surprising innovative technologies, says Jim, that reflect thorough planning.

“When I go to the gym, which is huge, and I get on the treadmill, the energy I generate by running actually feeds back into the electric grid.”

It’s the healthiest way to give back to the community.

Share photo by Kitson Partners.