One of the most common attacks on solar energy -- and renewable energy more broadly -- has been that it doesn't produce a consistent flow of electricity 24/7, and is therefore unsuitable to power a large percentage of the electric grid. But a new town in Florida intends to prove that wrong: It's planning to get 100% of its electricity from solar energy and an accompanying energy storage system.
The energy deal for Babcock Ranch
Babcock Ranch, a new development north of Fort Myers, will ultimately have 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial space. It's intended to be sustainable and green from the ground up -- from the water it will use to the architecture and energy efficiency of buildings. Its solar-plus-storage plan is a big piece of that, and could become a model for future developments.
Florida Power & Light, the utility arm of NextEra Energy (NEE -0.37%), was recently revealed to be developing a 74.5 MW solar project called Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center that will provide power for the entire development. And attached to the project is a 10 MW/40 MW-hr energy storage system -- which will be one of the largest storage systems in the country.
That energy storage system won't store enough energy to allow Babcock Ranch to sustain itself solely on the locally generated solar energy, but it'll allow significantly more self consumption before the town has to draw from the grid. And we know the solar plant will produce more energy than the town uses overall, meaning it will be a net consumer of 100% solar energy. This is the same model companies use to say they're using 100% clean energy when they really mean their net consumption is all clean energy. But the energy storage project could eventually allow Babcock Ranch to meet most of its energy needs from solar generated on-site.
A model for the future
What's interesting about Babcock Ranch is that it's being marketed to potential residents as a sustainable community. Green energy is part of that sales pitch, and that's a novel offering for communities in the U.S. But it's not unheard of for other organizations: As I mentioned, a number of corporations are making a point of buying renewable energy, and some say they intend to soon get 100% of their electricity from renewable sources on a net basis.
What's effectively being offered is a community solar project with the cost benefits of negotiating prices on a utility scale. Consumers get lower costs, while utilities can develop a large solar and energy storage project. It's potentially a win-win model for everyone involved.
Innovation in energy
Communities buying electricity directly from utility developers to serve their residents is a new innovation in the energy industry. But with costs dropping for solar, wind, and energy storage, such deals could be a way for developers to differentiate their housing projects from others. And it could expand the renewable energy market overall.