Some of Florida's most pristine acreage may soon become home to one Florida developer's dream of a green city: nearly 20,000 homes, powered entirely by the world's largest solar photovoltaic array.
The solar-powered city, announced Thursday, will be built on Babcock Ranch, more than 90,000 acres of cypress domes and pine forests that is home to panthers, black bears and wood storks. The state and Lee County paid $350 million for 73,000 acres of the ranch in 2005, and it remains the largest conservation purchase in Florida history.
In exchange for selling the land to the state, developer Sydney Kitson got a green light to use the remaining 17,000 acres for an eco-friendly town that includes 6 million square feet of retail and nonresidential space — equal to six malls — about 20 miles from the nearest city.
"Preservation can work hand in hand with development," Kitson said Thursday. "We're trying to set a blueprint for the rest of the country. We're out to prove to the private sector, when it comes to sustainable development, that it can be profitable."
Kitson's vision will be powered by a 75-megawatt solar photovoltaic array that, so far, is the largest planned in the world, said Eric Silagy, vice president and chief development officer for Florida Power & Light. The utility will begin construction on the array late this year or early 2010. Construction will take about a year, employ about 400 construction workers and cost $350 million to $400 million. The cost will be borne by FPL's 4.5 million customers, who will pay about 20 cents a month, Silagy said.
Florida Power & Light is the state's largest utility and is a subsidiary of FPL Group, a world leader in solar and wind energy. The Babcock Ranch array is the fourth major solar project the utility has undertaken.
Construction has already begun on three other projects in the state with a combined capacity of 110 megawatts. The largest of those three is a 75-megawatt solar thermal plant, which produces electricity by using the sun's heat to create steam that turns a turbine.
The Babcock Ranch project, by contrast, will be the world's largest to use photovoltaic panels, which use cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity. The plant will prevent the emissions of 61,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, Silagy said.
The solar array and the city will be connected to FPL's power grid. The city will use less power than the nearby solar array produces, making it a net exporter of solar electricity, Silagy said. So solar electricity will power the city when the sun shines and send unneeded solar energy to other FPL customers. At night, the city will draw power from the utility's other power plants that run on fossil or nuclear fuels.
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Kitson envisions a development dotted with small solar installations at homes and businesses. Buildings will meet the latest standards for energy efficiency and sustainability. The entire community will be threaded with bike and hiking paths. Solar kiosks dotted throughout the town will recharge electric cars. A smart grid will help conserve power and make the most of the town's solar resources.
Residents will live in a mix of apartments, townhouses and single-family detached homes, and low-income housing will be available. Sale prices will range from less than $200,000 to more than $1 million. The residents will also work in the city, and Kitson hopes they won't be commuters to Fort Myers, 8 miles away, unless "they can take their bicycles."
Where will they work? Kitson has an answer for that, too. He plans to attract renewable energy companies to Babcock's "living laboratory." Well-paid, "green collar" jobs will make their homes in Babcock's research, development and manufacturing facilities. Kitson said his Palm Beach Gardens firm, Kitson & Partners, is already negotiating with interested companies. He declined to name them but said he hopes to have more announcements within the next six months.
Kitson, an ex-NFL lineman who played for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, predicted that Babcock Ranch will become Florida's green Disney World. The difference is that when you pull back the curtain in Babcock, it's all real, Kitson said.
"It's futuristic," Kitson said. "But we're doing it now."
He expects to start selling the homes some time in 2010, and begin construction in 2011.
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State and local officials tried for years to buy Babcock Ranch as the final link in a 65-mile-long corridor of preserved land from Lake Okeechobee to Charlotte Harbor that includes Fisheating Creek and the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area.
The ranch, known among cattlemen as the Crescent B Ranch, straddles Charlotte and Lee Counties. It was operated by the same family since 1918. When patriarch Fred Babcock died in 1997, control of the ranch passed to more than 40 heirs, and they made it clear they were interested in selling to the right buyer.
Some environmental groups initially opposed Kitson's plans in court. But on Thursday, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society praised the Babcock Ranch project.
"The ranch would not have been preserved if we hadn't done what we had done," Kitson said. "It would have been sold in a million pieces. We're showing that preservation and development can work hand in hand. This is smart growth."
"Florida is finally becoming the 'Sunshine State' for real," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "This is a fabulous Happy Earth Day present for Florida."
Andrew McElwaine, chief executive of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said his organization supports Kitson's plan for a solar-powered city — but he's skeptical about whether it can attract buyers, given how much excess housing is already on the market statewide. Charlotte and Lee counties are already "in a race to see which can be the hardest hit county" by the economic slump, he said.
The economy has already forced Kitson to push construction back from 2010 to 2011 and to lay off nine employees at the Port Charlotte office of his firm, Kitson & Partners. Those setbacks won't derail the project, he said.
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