Babcock Ranch: The First American Solar-Powered Town

by Anna Gretz
May 3, 2018
Sustainability

Rooftop solar is powering households all over the United States, and wider world, but Babcock Ranch is taking solar power to a whole new level.

Babcock Ranch is about a half an hour northeast of Fort Myers, Florida, and it is calling itself America’s First Solar-Powered Town. Once they have reached their full solar generation capacity, the town boasts that it will produce even more energy than the town itself consumes. Let’s take a closer look at what town-wide energy independence looks like, and see why Babcock Ranch could become a model for residential design in the future.

How Solar Power Works for Babcock Ranch

Households around the world are installing solar panels to power their home. The solar revolution makes serious sustainable sense, and it’s also becoming the most economical way to power your home. Solar panels generate electricity from sunlight. It’s awesome. Once installed, solar panels require minimal maintenance and usually last over 25 years. That’s a quarter century of clean, free electricity.

This structure of energy usage is incredibly sustainable. I mean, it’s just about as reliable an energy source as you can think of: our sun. Developer Syd Kitson has been dreaming of sustainable city planning for over a decade, and he’s pretty excited about seeing Babcock Ranch become a reality.

“We want to be the most sustainable new town in the United States,” Kitson said. “We had the advantage of a green field, a blank sheet of paper. When you have a blank sheet of paper like this, you can really do it right from the beginning.”

When making plans for Babcock Ranch, Kitson didn’t stop at residential rooftop solar. His goal included solar-powered, self-driving transportation as well.

“I think it’s a lot sooner than I think people actually understand,” he says about autonomous vehicles. “It’s much sooner.”

Kitson plans to saturate Babcock Ranch with a transportation system made of zero-emission, autonomous vehicles which can be hailed with an app. Their fuel source? The sun of course! The same energy source as the street lamps, the building, and the light switches.

According to Kitson, it’s not actually more expensive to develop a town that sources its power from renewable energy; it just takes a different frame of mind.

“The people here pay the exact same amount that everybody else pays in the Florida Power and Light network,” Kitson said.

The difference between everyone else in Florida’s grid-connected network and the citizens of Babcock Ranch lies in reliability. This point was proven many times over when Hurricane Irma hit Florida. All around the state, power stations were decimated, leaving many citizens in the dark. At Babcock Ranch, not one of their 343,000 panels was dislodged. That’s power resiliency.

It sounds perfect… but it’s not. With energy storage, it could be.

Solar’s one weakness is the problem of intermittency: solar panels only generate electricity during the day when the sun is out. Any appliances, lights, or plugs that are using electricity during the day will use solar energy. But during the day, most people aren’t home using electricity, so most of the electricity from solar panels goes back onto the electrical grid. Babcock Ranch is no exception. At night, the citizens of the ranch draw power from the traditional electrical grid. But there’s another option. When batteries and solar panels team up, you can solve the problem of solar intermittency. With energy storage and solar panels, you can generate all of the electricity you need with solar panels, and then store extra electricity in your solar battery for when you want electricity but your solar panels aren’t generating any electricity. A solar batteries are a lot like power reservoirs. Water reservoirs continuously provide water, to overcome the intermittency of natural water flows. Home batteries ensure continuous power, overcoming the intermittency of natural solar flows.

Generating energy with solar panels is a great way to distribute energy production, but it only works if you keep it. Otherwise, the grid still has the do the work of regulating supply and demand, and you’re still dependent on grid power at night. The only way to use the energy generated by your solar panels earlier in the day is to store it in a battery.

If an entire town runs on solar power, like in the case of Babcock Ranch, batteries become even more important. Imagine a bottleneck of energy feeding back into the grid when the sun is high in the sky, all coming from the same district. Grid regulation has to go into overdrive. Unfortunately, Kitson and the other Babcock Ranch developers claim that the technology for storing surplus solar is still too costly. It’s very possible that they’ll end up paying the price elsewhere.

Preparing for a Sustainable Future

The Babcock Ranch project is going to be great for its residents, giving them reliable, clean, cheap power and great tools to use it efficiently. But on top of the many benefits for those who live there, the project will provide inspiration, and a working model of how other communities can build a more sustainable future. The electrical grid, as it stands, is already vulnerable, and the price of fossil fuels continues to rise (and most likely will, until we run out of them entirely). There’s never been a better time to look into innovative energy solutions. But it’s important for Babcock Ranch residents, as well as future developers of similar communities, to take a good look at energy storage options, like batteries.

Many homes are catching on to the benefits of installing solar panels. The next step is for everyone to see that you can’t experience the full value and advantages of solar photovoltaics without home batteries. Renewable energy sources, when used in conjunction with energy storage like home batteries, will power us into the future, even if we have to take it one neighborhood, or one home, at a time.