An All Solar City? Not Exactly

Michael Giberson

A development company in Florida has announced plans for what is being called an “all solar powered” city.  The developer doesn’t quite say it that way, but comes close on the Babcock Ranch website:

Raising the initiative of a sustainable, environmentally sensitive, green community to new heights, Babcock Ranch is the first city planned to be powered by the sun, with the majority of its electric needs generated from the largest on-site solar photovoltaic energy facility powering any city on earth.  By consuming less KW hours than the solar facilities located on the property will produce, Babcock Ranch will become the first city in the world powered by clean, renewable solar energy.

It seems to me that there are a few not entirely consistent claims presented:

  1. “Babcock Ranch is the first city planned to be powered by the sun”
  2. “the majority of its electric needs generated from the … on-site solar photovoltaic energy facility”
  3. Babcock Ranch will consume “less KW hours than the solar facilities located on the property will produce.”

So what is up? First of all, is (2) true, so only the majority of its electric needs will be generated from on-site solar, implying some generated elsewhere, or is (3) true, which says it will generate more power on-site than it will use?

Second, if (3) is true, then it must be the case that the city will be interconnected to an outside transmission grid. When local electric power consumption exceeds local solar production – is it ever cloudy in Southwest Florida? is it ever nighttime? – the city will be drawing power from the Florida grid.  According to recent EIA data, about 43 percent of Florida’s power comes from natural gas, 30 percent comes from coal, 10 percent from petroleum,14 percent in nuclear, and the remaining few percent comes from hydro and other renewables.

How does this make Babcock Ranch the “the first city in the world powered by clean, renewable solar energy”?

I might be impressed if they planned on having residents and businesses in the city pay a high enough price to cover all of the costs of the solar power. As it turns out, however, the costs will be paid by all Florida Power & Light ratepayers, as the utility plans to fold the costs of constructing and operating the facility into its regulated rate base. (Only about an extra 20 cents a month for the “typical residential customer”, according to the Greenwire report, even if the “typical residential customer” in Florida won’t be able to afford to live in the development. Ain’t regulation grand?)

I’d be even more impressed with the “all solar city” claims if Babcock Ranch were really “all solar,” and demonstrated it by not being linked to the FPL transmission system. At the minimum, anyone induced to purchase property from Babcock Ranch based on the “all solar” claims should get a contractual guarantee, subject to meaningful penalties, that the on-site solar production will meet or exceed the community’s power consumption. If the developer actually believes its marketing materials, the commitment should be nearly riskless.

The Miami Herald adds, “The solar project will be the fourth planned by FPL. The first three, totaling 110 megawatts, were planned after the Legislature passed a bill allowing a utility to have full-cost recovery of renewable energy projects up to 110 megawatts.” The Herald quotes a FPL spokesperson as indicating that the new project is contingent on “approvals from the Public Service Commission and action by the Legislature to approve new arrangements for renewable energy that would make the project economically worthwhile.”

So really, Babcock Ranch will be just another Florida town getting power provided by the local, vertically-integrated utility company, but just happens to be located next to a solar power facility. So why should we be impressed?


4 thoughts on “An All Solar City? Not Exactly

  1. Yes, sadly, we have a long way to go to remove the regulatory underbrush that impedes consumers from facing the real incentives that result from electricity generation technology. Thanks for your careful fisking of the marketing claims by Florida Power and Light. You are providing a service to the residents of Florida.

  2. If I stretch my imagination, I can see both 2 and 3 being literally true. 3 specifies kWh, but 2 uses the unspecific term “electric needs.” If the solar source is large enough to cover most of the development’s peak *demand*, then it may well generate more *energy* than the total consumed by the development. The rub is that the energy generated and the energy consumed would have different “time-shapes,” with the obviously required grid connection providing a borrow/lend type of virtual storage.

    Where I disagree with such wording is that I want to take the word “powered” literally. To me, it’s not “powered” entirely by solar. In the same sense, it isn’t true that a megawatt can “power” 500-1000 homes, as variously stated in the media. (I used to have nearly a kW of lights in my master bathroom, and my wife and daughter both use 1.5kW hair dryers, sometimes simultaneously. Already at 4kW, what if both of my AC units are on?) What is true is that a megawatt of capacity can generate enough *energy* to equal that consumed by 500-1000 “typical” homes, meaning average consumption per residential meter. But a megawatt isn’t near enough to “power” that many typical homes, in my lexicon. But alas, these terms aren’t really as specific as I’d like them to be.

  3. D.O.U.G.,

    You were quite gentle here.

    On winter weekday mornings, it would be very likely that the lights and both hair dryers would be in use before the sun was high enough in the sky to be useful.

    Were your AC units heat pumps, both would likely also be on, recovering from night setback. In the extreme, they might both be on the strip heaters instead.

    I am really negative about the concept that the “borrow/lend type of virtual storage” should be provided free, although that is probably less of an issue with solar than with wind.

  4. Way to see past the hype. The new Senate bill to fund the Renewable portfolio standard that the article refers to as the legislature is Senate Bill SB 1154. Provides a 2% rate increase and 1% gas tax to provide funding for utilities to invest in renewable energy projects. The bill lacks a residential solar carve out. So rather than create a rebate program for the general public to create a distributed energy grid and purchase their own solar power, the utility may use the money to build large systems and continue to sell power to the public – locally and vertically integrated.

    Great post.

    Justin

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