Powering an entire community with solar energy was once aspirational. But success breeds success, and 100% solar-powered neighborhoods are showing market viability and opportunity for developers across the country, thanks to improved technology, lower costs and positive public sentiment.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reported solar-installation costs have dropped by more than 60% over the last decade. Breaking that down, average-sized residential systems have fallen from a pre-incentive price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $20,000 today. Recent utility-scale solar has ranged between $16/ megawatt-hour (MWh) and $35/MWh, competitive with other forms of power generation.
Solar power is found in all 50 states, with Texas and Florida showing the most rapid growth beyond California. Aggressive solar energy goals can be found in other states, too, including Illinois, Missouri, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. With ever-increasing decarbonization goals, solar power has become a vital tool.
The benefits of solar power paired with battery storage is another favorable advance. SEIA reports that the growth in solar battery storage by 2025 is expected to represent more than 29% of all new behind-the-meter solar systems. That compares to 11% in 2021.
The solar-plus approach (PV and storage) has been embraced by SunPower, a major residential solar technology provider in San Jose, Calif. Earlier this year, the company announced SunVault Storage, its battery storage system. Utility-scale solar also supports this market. It represents over 45 gigawatts (GW) of commissioned or announced projects paired with storage, representing more than 50 GW-hours of storage capacity. Finally, investor interest in sustainable real estate has increased over the last five years, which helps developers.
All-solar neighborhoods succeed
With encouraging winds at its back, it seems entirely possible that solar-designed neighborhoods will progress from their outlier status. An early success was Grow Community on Bainbridge Island, Wash., a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Billed as the largest solar community in Washington, Grow’s first neighborhood started with 10 townhomes in 2012 and then expanded. Two more neighborhoods followed, and all have sold out.
The community features single-family, duplex and other multifamily homes. These rooftop-solar, all-electric homes have helped the Grow Community achieve net-zero operation, and a fourth neighborhood is in the planning stages.
Other net-zero communities can be found in sun-drenched Hawaii (Kaupuni Village), Utah (Living Zenith) and even Wisconsin (Red Fox Crossing). In fall 2021, Tesla Energy, Brookfield Asset Management Inc. and real estate development company Dacra announced a collaboration for SunHouse within Easton Park in Austin, Texas. Tesla V3 solar roof tiles and Powerwall 2 battery storage will be installed in phases at homes in SunHouse.
“As consumers increasingly seek out energy security, alongside sustainable places to live, combining Tesla’s solar technology together with Brookfield’s real estate and renewables development capabilities will help us meet demand for environmentally responsible communities of the future,” said Brian Kingston, managing partner and CEO of Brookfield’s Real Estate Group.
Developments take different approaches to all-solar communities. Just north of Fort Myers, Fla., is an all-solar community looking to become its own town. Called Babcock Ranch, the community is designated as an independent special district, but the developers hope to make it an official incorporated town.
“The idea for this sustainable community of homes, businesses, schools, all surrounded by nature, was conceived some 18 years ago when sustainability wasn’t talked about so much,” said Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Florida real estate company Kitson & Partners, and founder of Babcock Ranch. “The increased importance for healthy indoor environments, neighborhood walkability, sustainable transportation and a connection to nature have become very important. The times have caught up with our vision.”
Babcock Ranch comprises nine neighborhoods that pull power from two on-site solar farms owned by utility Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL), Juno Beach, Fla. More energy is produced during the day than consumed, which allows for solar power during the evening hours, and 10 MW of on-site battery storage contributes. Generated solar power is delivered to a Babcock substation. Power that is not pulled to Babcock Ranch continues to the grid. As a result, there is no need for residential rooftop solar, though it remains an option for home and commercial property owners. By the end of 2022, Kitson projects 5,000 residents will be living at Babcock.
FPL’s Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center went into operation in 2016, followed by the Babcock Preserve Solar Energy Center in 2020. Together, they produce 150 MW. Nearly 700,000 solar panels over 840 acres produce enough power for 30,000 homes. That level of production ensures power for residential, commercial and municipal operations today through tomorrow’s planned expansions to complete the town.
Proving what can be accomplished
“Babcock is really a showcase in what can be done using solar energy,” said Jack Eble, FPL communications specialist. “It was one of the first three energy centers FPL built and paved the way to what are currently 50 solar energy centers statewide, the largest solar build-out in total in the United States. We would not be where we are today without Babcock Ranch.”
Kitson said he wanted to prove property development could work hand-in-hand with the environment.
“The land purchase from the Babcock family represented 91,000 acres of land, but we sold 73,000 acres to the state of Florida for preservation,” he said. “We committed to preserving and maintaining lots of wetlands. A lot of attention was paid to how we built our parks and trails, our homes, schools and commercial buildings. We really designed the town first before building the homes. Our focus was to create a new town, not just a development. That is rare in Florida.”
Kitson calls Babcock Ranch a work in progress. Half the residents are young families and half are empty-nesters.
“From an education standpoint, we are focused on building a great school system,” he said. “We began with a preschool, then built a public charter grade school.”
A high school and field house, which will serve as a regional storm shelter, will open in early August 2022. A single-family rental neighborhood has also broken ground. In addition, Babcock developers are in talks to add independent/assisted living housing.
In commercial development, 6 million square feet of light industrial, retail, commercial civic and office space were approved as part of the master plan for Babcock Ranch. Businesses range from professional services to dining and shopping, and more. Groundbreaking for the first model homes was in July 2016. The first residents moved in January 2018.
In the six years between concept and planning to home construction (2009–2015), roads and infrastructure were being built at Babcock, including a water treatment plant and reclamation system.
“Pumping stations support the 6 million square feet of property that make up Babcock,” Kitson said. “You can imagine the infrastructure we needed to build. Our utilities were designed from the ground up to minimize water consumption and reuse water for 100% of our irrigation needs. Water that leaves our property leaves cleaner.”
The Babcock solar fields also supply power to the water treatment plant and reclamation system.
“You need to be innovative as a sustainable town, Kitson said. “Be on the leading-edge. Technology, wireless ability, big data has risen to the forefront in helping cities become smart. We incorporated smart systems at the outset to monitor infrastructure. Sensors gather data that helps us better manage everything from our pumps to our streetlights.”
In Babcock’s Lake Timber neighborhood, seven experimental homes have been built by national homebuilders Lennar, Pulte Homes and D.R. Horton. Called Innovation Way, the homes will serve as laboratories to explore forward-thinking optimization of home energy consumption. For example, FPL will be testing and monitoring home electric vehicle chargers, battery-storage systems and app-enabled smart panels that allow for various remotely operated home circuitry and monitoring. Other current or developing technologies will be featured throughout the homes targeting antimicrobial disinfection, water filtration, smart HVAC and more. During the two-year testing process, the public can take self-guided tours of the unoccupied homes.
“Ideally, the data will validate our expectations that these test homes are healthier and reduce energy and water use,” said Thomas Hoban, president and chief investment officer of Kitson & Partners. “When it comes to health and wellness, sustainability, conservation, net-zero energy and carbon neutrality, the impact of Innovation Way across the homebuilding industry could be game-changing.”
FPL SolarNow trees—decorative solar-powered charging stations for consumer electronics—and FPL Evolution EV charging ports are installed in Babcock’s Founder’s Square.
In 2018, FPL had its largest operating solar-and-storage power plant at Babcock Ranch, which led to even bigger thinking for the utility. In December 2021, the utility opened its Manatee Energy Storage Center in Parrish, Fla. Forty times larger than Babcock, it covers 40 acres, offers 409 MW of power and is composed of 130 units averaging 400 lithium-ion batteries per container. FPL bills the effort as the “world’s largest solar-powered battery.”
“We have a ’30 by 30’ solar-panel goal, installing 30 million solar panels across Florida by 2030,” Eble said. “We’re expecting to meet that goal early by 2025 and are currently under budget. Babcock is a pioneer and a partner. We both share a vision for an energy future that is clean and affordable.”