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Can an entire town run on solar?

In an attempt to “do it the right way,” developer Syd Kitson is building Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre planned community just north of Ft. Meyers, with hope that it can operate almost entirely on solar power. So far about 200 people have moved in, though Kitson is aiming to lure as many as 50,000 in coming decades, while setting a precedent for responsible development. Hari Sreenivasan reports. This is part of our ongoing series, “Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.”

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When we think of the source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change, transportation and industry are likely the first things that come to mind. In reality, 40 percent of those emissions in the U.S. stem from the energy used to heat, cool, light and power our buildings. But a new residential development in Florida is trying to show there's a different way. This story is part of our ongoing series: "Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change."

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It took the local utility company more than a year to build this 440 acre solar array in southwest Florida.

  • SYD KITSON:

    It's one of the largest if not the largest in the state. But more importantly it powers, it powers the town of Babcock Ranch.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Syd Kitson once played football for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. Now a developer, Kitson is the mastermind behind Babcock Ranch, an 18,000 acre planned community. At its peak, Kitson says the development will have close to 20,000 homes, all powered by the sun.

  • SYD KITSON:

    The idea for us from the beginning was to create the most environmentally responsible, the most sustainable new town that had ever been developed.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In 2006, Kitson's real estate company bought 91,000 acres of land, then sold 80 percent of it to the state of Florida to be preserved forever. The company is using the remaining property, mostly former farm and rock mining land to create Babcock Ranch. That includes more than 8,000 acres for green space. The first residents moved in in January. The hope is that by 2040 Babcock Ranch will be home to 50,000 people. And demonstrate that going green is good business.

  • SYD KITSON:

    It just seemed like a great opportunity to prove that you can do it the right way. That you can preserve land, that preservation and development can work hand in hand.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But the ambition goes beyond solar power and preservation. The goal is for Babcock Ranch to be a model of sustainability. The development requires all the homes and commercial buildings to be certified green by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

  • JENNIFER LANGUELL:

    Builders were like, "really? You want me to do what? That's going to blow my budget."

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Jennifer Languell is a sustainable design consultant hired by Kitson's firm. She works with the builders at Babcock Ranch, steering them towards environmentally friendly building techniques and materials.

  • JENNIFER LANGUELL:

    So why I wanted to get you guys out here to this house in particular was because it's kind of this house in his underpants stage and so we can kind of see what's behind those walls.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    She points to insulation in the roof, foam in the concrete walls, and even the thickness of windows. All of these components are specifically selected to optimize energy efficiency.

  • JENNIFER-LANGUELL:

    We're looking at about a 27 percent energy reduction over Florida energy code and that's about about a 40 to 42 percent energy reduction over the national average.

  • RICHARD KINLEY:

    I wanted the smallest possible home…

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Richard and Robin Kinley were the very first residents of Babcock Ranch. The semi-retired couple moved here in January from the Atlanta area to escape the congestion of the city and lead a more eco-friendly life.

  • ROBIN KINLEY:

    I grew up on the east coast of Florida and I saw homes just kind of thrown up and not thought through all that well.

  • RICHARD KINLEY:

    It's more of an intention to live in this kind of community. Pretty much everyone that's moved in seems to be a similar mind as far as sustainability.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Kinleys own two cars, one of which is electric. Every garage is pre-wired with enough power to easily charge it. But living in a town designed to be walkable — Babcock Ranch has miles of trails — the Kinleys say they often go several days without driving at all.

  • ROBIN KINLEY:

    I love the idea of getting away from cars. I mean I think cars are just literally choking America to death.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The town is testing one of the state's first driverless shuttle systems, powered by electricity generated from the solar panels. The goal is to give every resident access to the vehicles via a ride hailing app. And Syd Kitson says that may be feasible by next year.

  • SYD KITSON:

    We're hoping within ten years people will have need for only one car and then shortly thereafter they won't need a car at all.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In the meantime residents keep coming, about 200 so far.

    Jasmin and Joshua Day weren't looking for a community like Babcock Ranch. But just a week after discovering the town, they put a deposit on a home.

  • JASMIN DAY:

    He had a conversation with a co-worker who was joking with him because we kind of are more, 'hippy,' I guess maybe in some of the things that we do. And they were joking and they were like, 'oh we heard about this town it's like this sustainable city there's solar panels you guys would love it.' And I looked it up and I was like I really actually do love this town.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joshua, a physical therapist, got a job at the local health center in the town's commercial hub before they moved in. It's where the first buildings went up. There's also a restaurant and coffee shop, a small grocery store, and a brand new school

    And this is all strategic – it's early in the project, but Kitson's goal is to build a self-contained town: provide robust local businesses with job opportunities so residents will be less likely to jump in a car and leave.

    In fact, Joshua's new commute is just a five minute bike ride.

  • JASMIN DAY:

    For us being part of like a community of people who are also thinking this, it's not just our choices. It's you know builders, it's landscapers, it's people who are buying from the farmers market instead of you know X Y and Z. Like, for us it's really an endless stream of choices.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The solar panels and green buildings may be the most visible sustainability features at Babcock Ranch. But according to engineer Amy Wicks it's water conservation that shaped the design of the community.

  • AMY WICKS:

    It's really a unique system here and it's really not something that's been done in residential developments thus far.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Driving along the town's roads you might not notice these flat ribbon curbs. They allow water to flow to what are called rain gardens, they're designed to replicate what wetlands do – hold and filter water before it flows downstream.

  • AMY WICKS:

    Instead of just engineering a system to work we're engineering the system to mimic nature because really what we've learned over time is nature had it right all along.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Wicks has worked on water engineering at Babcock Ranch for more than a decade. She says this land once had seasonal lakes before it was drained to make way for agriculture.

  • AMY WICKS:

    This here is the weir that we've designed that's going to hold back that water to mimic that natural system that was here before, that natural lake system.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    North of town a ditch that just a year ago looked like this has been transformed.

  • AMY WICKS:

    This now holds water, almost the entire year. Back to what the natural conditions were.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what Babcock Ranch is doing here has an effect on nearby waterways. Toxic algae blooms have increased in Florida. They turn waterways green, smell, and can affect both human and marine animal health. The blooms can naturally occur, but worsen with runoff from agriculture and development, including fertilizer and waste.

  • AMY WICKS:

    We've really realized that development has really impacted the water quality in the state of Florida. Something like this is really important just to try to reduce the overall runoff that's going out to our gulf ultimately, out to our oceans.

  • WIN EVERHAM:

    Something's always downstream from you and you've got to take that into account.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Win Everham is an ecologist at Florida Gulf Coast University. Early in the development of Babcock Ranch he was called in to help survey the wildlife population. And he's followed the project's development.

  • WIN EVERHAM:

    What we know will happen in the future on this landscape is more people will want to come here. And what we're really lacking is better models for how to put them on the land. Babcock Ranch could be a better model.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But for all of the town's sustainability features, there are gaps. For example most of the homes will be single family.

  • WIN EVERHAM:

    I think it's fair to criticize some of the ways we develop and part of the ways that Babcock's been developed that the most efficient way of putting people on the land would be in tall apartment buildings where the people are concentrated and you maximise the green space

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And while green space has been set aside at Babcock, and the amount of grass each home can have is limited, some have argued the developers could have gone further. For instance they could ban lawns altogether.

  • SYD KITSON:

    We've been asked, you know, why don't you just you know say you can't have grass at all and you know the practicality of it is difficult. Remember, we do have to sell homes

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Kitson says homes are priced for different budgets. They start at around $200,000, slightly higher than the median for this part of Florida and can go as high as one million dollars. Kitson says affordability and sustainability are not necessarily in conflict.

  • SYD KITSON:

    We need to prove that building a sustainable and environmentally responsible new town makes sense from an economic perspective. Not just from the people who are developing it like us but for the homeowners who are going to buy homes and make their investments within the community.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But Kitson acknowledges making Babcock Ranch as green as possible is still a work in progress.

  • SYD KITSON:

    Are we 100 percent sustainable right now? No. But can we get there? Absolutely.

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