June 19, 2024

Hurricane Ian — a ginormous storm with 150 mph sustained winds — flattened much of Florida a few days ago. We watched the dramatic images of flooded, wind-torn homes and shuddered in sympathy at dark windows and power outages. The force of nature! The inevitable destruction!
But wait, what lies over there — we see Punta Gorda, where the storm made landfall on Florida’s west coast and set records of destruction. Yet just beyond, on the inland side, it looks like houses and schools and neighborhoods, all largely (and remarkably!) unscathed. Electric lights shine brightly undarkened by power outage. We’re looking at the planned community of Babcock Ranch, and we have to ask, does it have a magic cone of protection? Or perhaps it just got some good old-fashioned luck? As it turns out, it has neither — but it does have a secret: sustainable technology.
Florida developments often take the form of planned communities, places of real estate investment seeking returns in swaps, fields, and other blank slates on a large scale. In 2016, developer Kitson & Partners launched a project with typical Florida hyperbole … and a twist. The press release trumpeted that Babcock Ranch “when completed — will be the most sustainable, most innovative and healthiest new town in the country. Located in southwest Florida, Babcock Ranch is not only the nation’s largest development currently underway, but it will also be the first town primarily powered by the sun.”
Given that Florida goes by the moniker the “Sunshine State” well, it seemed about time. Phase 1 would have 1,100 residences and the full build-out planned for 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial and community space, along with trails and green space, all on 18,000 acres or, as the promotion materials coyly put it, an area about the size of Manhattan.
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The company did a deal with Florida Light & Power Co. that included, 440 acres on which it built two 74.5 MW solar facilities, added battery storage, and deployed bunches of “solar trees,” which are small solar canopies that both harvest incremental sun and provide shade throughout the community. Utilities lie underground, protected from wind and planned to avoid flood waters as well.
They invited in homebuilders, but only those who would follow post-2007 Florida building codes and plan for storm survival. The resulting streets let water run through while keeping homes dry, and the buildings incorporated structural elements to withstand wind. The result looks pretty much like Florida — which is to say, houses on flat plots featuring big garages front and center and banks of condos with stories and stories of lanais. Some of the homes combine this aesthetic with Net Zero goals as well showing that style and substance can mix and match in ways outside preconceived notions. But most of all, the structures all of remain standing after a Category 4 or 5 storm.
That’s right, this version of Florida let Hurricane Ian roll through, over, and out — and open right up again. Babcock Ranch mirrored and magnified what we saw in Mexico Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Michael smashed the Florida panhandle to smithereens in October 2018.
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Picture the CNN image, where amidst the ruins of that city one house stood calmly and coolly, welcoming its owners as the flood waters receded. Like Babcock Ranch, its design acknowledged hurricanes. It was built with structural awareness of wind, water, and flood. The home’s owner told the Weather Channel that it cost about 20% more to build this way, but he and his family knew that storms and Florida went hand-and-hand.
Every time we hear a power company complain about the impossibility of embracing renewables, every time we hear a builder badmouth change, every time we doze at the topic of infrastructure … we miss a chance to embrace some of the most interesting and relevant technology at our fingertips today.
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Built space (aka, cities, homes, schools, shopping areas and communities) bristles with technology innovations. Of course, some of those innovations might be 1,000 years old, but at one point, breakthrough engineering made breakthrough living possible. Florida Light & Power would hardly land on anyone’s cutting-edge companies list — yet with the right incentives, it turns out it can drop natural gas and embrace the sun for profit and sustainability, creating a power grid that survives hurricanes, showing that power and blackout don’t need to reside in the same sentence. If that doesn’t register as a cool technology application, I’m not sure what does!
The more I think about that 2018 unscathed house in Mexico Beach during Michael and the electricity-never-stopped community of Babcock Ranch during Ian in 2022, the more I keep thinking that there’s a way — and maybe it’s just the will we’re missing.
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The technology of power generation and distribution, of structural design, of building material development, and of civil engineering defines our civilization. More than any other tech, it might define our long-term survivability. Collectively, we know how to build better, stronger, more resilient and more sustainably. Heck, if a real estate developer and a power utility in Florida (!) can do it while merrily turning a profit, why haven’t we all jumped on that path?
I don’t wish Category 4-plus storms on anyone, but maybe that’s what it takes to see the value in embracing sustainable technology as we build our physical world.
Teresa Martin of Eastham lives, breathes and writes about the intersection of technology, business and humanity. 
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