In any society, major technology-driven advances usually come from genuinely useful innovation and real-world practicality. Smartphones are a prime example of this phenomenon. The life-changing potential of the iPhone certainly existed when it was first released in 2007. However, it wasn’t until years of nationwide adoption before the practicality of owning one, or the impracticality of being the odd man out, created a closed-loop ecosystem to the point that two-thirds of Americans now own at least one Apple product.
The progress vs. practicality argument has been a significant part of the renewables discourse ever since the prospect of an eventual transition was first considered. For a long time, renewables supposed “impracticality” covered many bases for fossil fuel advocates and transition pessimists. Arguments included clean energy not being cheap enough, solar panels requiring a complex infrastructure, and wind turbines presenting a danger to migrating birds.
But as cost curves continue to improve for renewables, practicality is once again used as a defense of traditional power, this time referring to concerns surrounding the reliability and resiliency of clean energy in the face of severe weather events. In the wake of Hurricane Ian, one Florida community ran counter to this theory, sitting as the only city for miles that still kept the lights on, and it was all thanks to renewable energy.
Babcock Ranch sits only a few miles from Fort Myers and several other Florida towns still reeling from the catastrophic damage of Ian. And yet, the roughly 2,000 households that make up the community experience virtually no interruptions to their energy supply while winds above 100 mph left nearly 3 million surrounding residents without power for days.
This continuation of service is all thanks to an enormous 700,000-panel solar array that sits just outside the town, regularly producing enough clean energy to support the entire community’s needs and then some.
Robust weatherization measures included in Babcock’s city planning meant the flooding stayed limited to the streets instead of people’s homes.
“It certainly exceeded our expectations of a major hurricane,” said Anthony Grande, who moved to Babcock after experiencing the destruction of 2004’s Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Grande, who said Ian’s damage to his property had amounted to a few lost shingles and uprooted trees, is one of many residents who see the last few weeks as proof of the resiliency potential of entirely renewable energy centered communities. What truly hammers that sentiment home is that Grande’s neighborhood charter school, which is solar-powered and doesn’t even have a generator, has been designated a point of refuge for the influx of families coming from other communities.
“We’re very, very blessed and fortunate to not be experiencing what they’re experiencing now in Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach,” he said.
Also along for the ride was Babcock founder and former professional football player Syd Kitson. The town has come a long way from the sustainable community dream it was when it first broke ground for development in 2015. All that success surely meant Kitson had the means to evacuate in the buildup to Ian. Instead, he opted to stay back, taking this as an opportunity to see first-hand whether his careful weatherization planning would prove sturdy against a Category 4 hurricane.
“He was there during the storm; he said, ‘where else would I be?’” said spokesperson Lisa Hall, passing along the message while Kitson focused on nearby rebuilding efforts. “We built it to be resilient, and as much as you plan and think you’ve done the right thing, you don’t know until you put it to the test.”