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Florida may be called the Sunshine State, but it is no stranger to the damaging impacts of climate change. Miles O'Brien profiles one small Florida community that is trying to take advantage of all that sunshine, billed as the country's first solar-powered town. This report is part of our collaborative series on climate change and its consequences, "Covering Climate Now."
Florida is no stranger to the damaging effects of climate change.
Miles O'Brien visited a community billed as the country's first solar-powered town.
It is the latest report in our ongoing coverage about climate change and its consequences and part of a major journalism collaborative called Covering Climate Now.
It's first light, and one of the largest solar arrays in the Sunshine State is starting another 150-megawatt day.
We spent eight years working to make this happen.
Developer Syd Kitson showed me the crown jewel of his sustainable town. It could signal the dawn of a new era in the fight against the climate change crisis.
It's 700,000 panels on about 800 acres of land. So, it is a very large solar field. That's more than enough to power our city at full build-out.
It's called Babcock Ranch, the first solar-powered town in the country.
So, when you look out here, is this our future?
It is the future. It's a piece of the puzzle. And it's a good piece of the puzzle.
The puzzle pieces are falling into place 25 miles north of Fort Myers at what was a huge cattle ranch.
Here, Kitson and partners are developing a master plan community of nearly 20,000 homes with a population of 50,000. So far, about 2,300 are here in 900 homes. And it already feels like a town, with a Main Street, a green with a bandshell, shops and offices. Nearly all the amenities are planned.
It will all eventually connected by autonomous electric shuttles. For now, golf carts and electric scooters are the preferred means of mobility.
We want them to stay here, to be comfortable here, to have the shopping, to have the entertainment that they want. I want to be able to work here, and obviously live their lives here.
Kitson has been a developer for more than 35 years. Before that, he was a lineman for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in the '80s.
Now he hopes to write a new playbook for developers to go on offense against the climate emergency.
When people hear the word developer, it has a certain connotation that might not necessarily be all that positive. It just makes sense to do it the right way, to live in an environment that is clean and sustainable. That's just good for us health-wise. So, if we are also helping in climate change, we're all winning.
The utility that built and operates the solar arrays, Florida Power & Light, agrees. It was one of the company's first big forays into solar power.
It's really our showcase, working with Babcock Ranch, to highlight all the things that we're doing in one spot.
Matt Valle is FPL's vice president of development.
Since the installation of these arrays at Babcock Ranch in 2016, the company has gone big on solar power. Statewide, it has installed about 11 `million solar panels, generating nearly 9 percent of what it puts into the grid. The big driver is economics. Solar panels are now 80 percent cheaper than they were a decade ago.
Every time we make a forecast for what we think solar is going to be in a few years, when we get to that point in time, the actual cost of solar is much lower than we were forecasting. It's the only thing in our generation plan going forward for the next 10 years.
FPL has built 10 megawatts of lithium battery storage here, but it's not nearly enough to power Babcock Ranch through the night. A natural gas plant fills the gap.
Grid-level energy storage ideas remain in their infancy. But some Babcock Ranch residents aren't willing to wait for that. They have solar panels on the roof and Tesla battery walls in the garage.
So that, at any one time, we're getting electricity either from the batteries from the roof itself or the solar panels we have up there or from the grid.
Tom and Lisa Hall have lived here for a year.
I have heard people say we're living in the city of the future, but we're living here already. Everybody who moves here are really pioneers. People feel a certain sense of they're taking part in a real experiment, and they're part of it. And they love being part of it.
Syd Kitson's definition of sustainability extends far beyond renewable energy. He has worked hard to ensure Babcock Ranch has sustainable demographics, a mix of incomes and ages. And that's why one of the one of the first things he built was this charter school, with a project-based learning curriculum.
I walk into these rooms and think, man, these guys are going to be world-changers. They truly are.
Shannon Treece is the principal. The school filled up almost instantly and has lured many families with school-age kids to Babcock Ranch.
We want to breed that innovation mind-set, that growth mind-set that you're never you're never done learning. And if we're going to solve big world problems, you have got to have a skill set to do that.
You're growing sustainable humans, essentially, right?
I hope so. That's the goal.
But is this idea an interesting one-off or something that can be replicated?
I think the jury's still out on Babcock Ranch.
Ellen Dunham-Jones is a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research is focused on retrofitting existing suburbs to make them more sustainable. She says Babcock Ranch is a shining example of so-called new urbanist design principles, but:
It's not dealing enough with really the big — the bigger challenges that we have to deal with. So, it's doing good things, but I want to see the lessons learned from that that we can really apply to, I think, this just much bigger challenge, which is all the existing places.
And that is happening. She says many developers are transforming dead shopping malls and office parks in the suburbs into more pedestrian-friendly town centers.
It's a back-to-the-future approach to development, which Syd Kitson has embraced. The old Babcock Ranch property was 90,000 acres. But his development will sit on only a fifth of it. He sold the rest back to the state to be set aside.
And in some cases, he brought the land back to its natural state. This wetland had been drained for agriculture.
You look out here and you look at this beautiful wetland now, knowing that, just literally a couple of years ago, it was dry, arid and not good for anything. Now you — it's flourishing.
A developer who has created some swampland in Florida. Go figure.
The land here is 30 feet above sea level. In the state with the most to lose as the climate changes, Babcock Ranch is sitting pretty indeed.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Babcock Ranch, Florida.
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Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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