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Think of it as another kind of Sun City: the City of Babcock Ranch–to be developed near Fort Myers, FL–aims to be the first solar-powered city, powered by the world’s largest photovoltaic facility.

To be built on 17,000 acres over 10 to 15 years, the City of Babcock Ranch will provide a living laboratory for green development, says its developer, Sydney Kitson, CEO of Palm Beach Gardens, FL-based Kitson & Partners–the project’s developer.

“We recognized early that we had a blank sheet of paper,” Kitson says. “This is the opportunity of my lifetime, to set an example.”

The entire project consists of 91,000 acres–of which more than 73,000 acres has been set aside as a nature preserve. Over time, the city will ultimately include six million square feet of retail, commercial, office, civic and light industrial space, as well as about 20,000 homes.

Babcock Ranch’s homes and businesses will be powered by a state-of-the-art 75-megawatt photovoltaic facility–the world’s largest–to be built on 350 acres by FPL Group, a division of utility Florida Power & Light. Additional photovoltaic arrays will be built on commercial rooftops throughout the community.

“We are extremely excited to build one of the world’s largest solar photovoltaic projects once the state legislative and regulatory authorities have taken the actions that would be required for us to move forward,” says Florida Power & Light Company Chief Development Officer Eric Silagy, in the press release announcing the project. Because the project is pending renewable energy legislation and approvals from the Florida Public Service Commission, the utility declined further comment. “We believe large-scale solar projects like Babcock Ranch can yield significant environmental benefits to the people of Florida, create sustainable job growth and stimulate the local economy.”

A recent study conducted by Orlando-based independent research firm Fishkind & Associates found that the city of Babcock Ranch would generate 20,000 permanent jobs across a wide range of industries and income levels, including education, retail, service industries, high technology, administration and manufacturing, the developer says. Thousands of additional temporary jobs will be created in construction and related fields over the next 20 years.

The development process began four years ago, when Kitson announced plans to acquire the 91,000-acre ranch from the Babcock family, selling 73,000 to the state for the nature preserve. Its goal, was creating “the most environmentally responsible community ever,” Kitson recalls. “We now have the ability to bring these things to reality.”

“When we first brought up our idea, people thought we were nuts,” Kitson says. “Green wasn’t cool back then. It’s not a fad anymore.”

The project will be developed as a series of residential villages, connected by pathways to a downtown commercial core. All commercial buildings and homes in the new city will be certified as energy-efficient and constructed according to Florida Green Building Council standards. A ‘Smart Grid’ digital network will use two-way communication, advanced sensors and computers to improve energy efficiency. The system will be equipped with multiple distribution paths that can automatically reroute to power for consistency. In addition, the entire city will be wireless-internet enabled and an ultra-high-capacity digital pipeline will support the use of current and emerging technologies.

“We want to be the renewable energy/technology center of the world,” Kitson says.

The project also will be hooked up to the regional power grid as a backup source of power. But the plan is for Babcock Ranch to produce excess energy, providing a new technology challenge.

“We’ll always be producing more solar energy than we’re using,” Kitson says. “Storage of energy is in its infancy, and we’re trying to work on that.”

Babcock Ranch also will employ other green technologies, including: sustainable water management and conservation; street lamps designed to reduce light pollution; electric car chargers; and green roofs to reduce energy loss. The master plan calls for parks, trails, shops, restaurants and a state-of-the-art Wellness and Fitness Center within walking distance of downtown, reducing vehicular traffic.

The project also faces other challenges, including its location in a major hurricane area. In addition to the project’s location 12 miles inland and 25 to 30 feet above sea level, all buildings will be able to withstand winds of 120 miles per hour through the use of native trees and landscaping as well as adherence to strict local building codes. The Smart Grid technology also should permit rapid restoration of services after a storm-related power loss, the developer says.

Financing the project during a major credit crunch is another concern. Babcock Ranch has become an independent special district, giving it a public financing mechanism that offers it more options to fund a $2-billion project, Kitson says.

All of Babcock Ranch’s entitlements are in place and the company is now focusing on permits. The slowdown in the housing market, however, has led to a slightly different development order than is typical in master-planned communities.

“We need to bring businesses here,” Kitson says. “We’re going to be creating jobs.”

Subject to State of Florida approvals, groundbreaking on the FPL solar facility is targeted for late 2009, with construction of the city center targeted for mid-2010 and construction of the first residential and commercial buildings targeted for late 2010. Overall development, however, will take the next 15 to 20 years, Kitson says.

“The solar [array] announcement was the first part of this,” Kitson says. “Now we’re going to take that to a whole new level.”

Over the decades, other developers have proposed high-tech planned development that would become laboratories for the future. Walt Disney’s original 1960s vision for EPCOT–then dubbed the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow–was in fact a master-planned community, only to become a theme park opened in 1982. Yet despite history and the complexity of Babcock Ranch’s development, it is one others should examine, Kitson says.

“We’re trying to set an example. We want people to replicate what we’re doing,” Kitson says. “We want to show people a venue where they can live the life they want to live. The technology is there, and people are truly interested.”

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