FLORIDA, USA — For years, there's been a growing movement among environmentalists to push the state of Florida into using its greatest asset as a source of renewable energy. No matter the day, the month or season, the warm sun seems to always be shining over the state.
However, one Florida community has tried to stay ahead of the curve. And, four years after becoming America's very first solar-powered community, is still proving the switch is possible.
Nestled between Punta Gorda and Fort Myers in southwest Florida is Babcock Ranch. A community made up of nearly 20,000 homes with a population of roughly 50,000 and a whole lot of solar panels.
Babcock Ranch's founder, Syd Kitson, says the original vision he had was proving a community could be built with the health of the environment being at the forefront.
Kitson used to be a lineman for the Green Bay Packers in the 1980s. But in 2005, he decided to start tackling the climate crisis as a developer when he first drew up the plans for Babcock Ranch.
"As a developer, we impact the environment," Kitson says. "It's our responsibility to mitigate those impacts."
At the core of that mission was running the city on renewable energy. Kitson says many energy sources were considered, but being that Babcock Ranch was going to exist in the Sunshine State, it just made sense to go solar.
Kitson and his team originally bought a 91,000-acre ranch to get the project off the ground but ended up selling 73,000 acres to the state of Florida for preservation. Of the remaining 18,000 acres, Kitson says only half was chosen to be developed on, the rest was preserved and used for wetland restoration.
At the beginning of 2018, Babock Ranch officially welcomed its first residents.
The solar farm the city runs on is owned by Florida Power and Light and originally took up 400-acres of land, generating 75-megawatts of electricity. However, because of the city's growth over the years, that land has doubled and the facility now generates 150-megawatts of electricity - enough to power nearly 30,000 homes. Kitson says a 10-megawatt battery storage facility was also recently added.
However, it wasn't always smooth sailing for Babcock Ranch. Kitson says, early on, it was quite expensive to run a community on nothing but solar power. He also found there wasn't enough political will to get the project done. According to him, solar energy was seen as a threat to other forms of energy.
"Anytime you time you innovate, it's very, very hard," Kitson says. "There's just groups and people that don't want you to necessarily do something that might impact them in a negative way."
Thankfully, the cost of solar energy has gone down in recent years and Kitson has been able to overcome those political barriers, paving the way for Babcock Ranch to be where it is today.
Now, Kitson says the community is being used as a model for what is possible with renewable energy. The only thing stopping other areas from adopting its solar example is battery storage, which uses the reserved energy created by the sun after sundown or during moments when energy demand peaks.
For major established cities like Tampa or Miami, the technology just isn't there yet.
But, Kitson says that innovation is happening, and, for now, the future looks bright.