Solar power has been, ironically, slow to catch on in the sunshine state.
But developers of a new city aim to catapult Florida to the forefront of solar innovation. Babcock Ranch, a new housing and commercial development on a swath of rich swampland outside Fort Myers, promises to be the world’s first city to be powered only by solar energy. Residents will rely for power on a 75 megawatt, $300 million solar-powered generator.
The new solar city will be home to 8,000 homes and an industrial park. The developers, Florida Power & Light and the development firm Kitson & Partners, intend for Babcock Ranch to serve as a lightning rod for new state legislation aiming to turn Florida into a green pioneer.
Help is on the way. This month the state’s Governor Charlie Crist is pushing lawmakers to pass an ambitious bill that would mandate 20% of Florida’s power comes from renewable energy sources by 2020, with a raft of incentives and tax breaks for the green sector.
The state’s nascent solar energy industry is likely to be the prime beneficiary of changes in the law.
Until a few years ago no solar energy was produced in Florida. But small solar installations have tripled in fewer than three years, and Progress Energy customers recently surpassed 1 megawatt of solar installed. Nearly 250 megawatts of solar projects have been announced statewide, although the financial downturn has led to delays for some projects (Babcock Ranch insists they will be breaking earth next year and have already got their funding in place).
Still, Florida is projected to have more solar power installed than every state except California by this time next year. "Solar is starting to come of age," said Eric Silagy, vice president and chief development officer for FPL, who sees Florida becoming the Silicon valley of the solar business.
Despite rapid growth in recent years, solar power accounts for less than 1 percent of United States' electricity use. Solar power is more prevalent in European countries such as Spain and Germany, which have promoted its development with strong incentives called feed-in tariffs, which require electric utilities to buy solar power at a high, fixed price.
Last month Gainesville, Fla., became the first U.S. city to provide higher payments for solar power, which is otherwise too expensive for many families or businesses to buy. City leaders, who control their electric utility, unanimously approved the policy after studying Germany’s solar-power expansion.