New solar-powered homes going up in Cortez Village near Bradenton

Established in the 1880s on the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay, Cortez is a National Register of Historic Places community in Manatee County that takes pride in its heritage as one of the few remaining "old Florida" fishing villages in existence. In a modern-day plot twist, Cortez may soon make history under the direction of climate-concerned PEARL Homes builders who view the sunny, beachside village as the keyholder to sustainable, solar-powered living.

PEARL Homes aims to introduce the first "net-zero" energy households in the United States. That is homes that generate as The kitchen will double as a living and dining area.
much, or possibly even more, energy than they consume. Allocated for 148 units in historic Cortez, Hunters Point will be the first community of its kind in Florida and one of the only communities in the U.S. powered by the sonnenBatterie, a lithium-based solar energy storage system engineered by the German company sonnen. 

"There's so much talk about how solar is going to be the solution. The problem is: You generate all this power, but what are you going to do with it?" says PEARL Homes President Marshall Gobuty. 

PEARL Homes' award-winning Mirabella community, established in west Bradenton in 2015, was among the first LEED Platinum-certified housing communities in Florida. 

"We're trying to lead by example. What we did in Mirabella, where we created 150-plus LEED Platinum homes, is not the industry norm -- and now we're looking at what's next in Hunters Point. Consider the idea of how terrible plastic is for the environment and how industries are looking at ways to reduce plastic use. It's the same for homebuilding: we as an industry are saying that we care; that we need to do better," Gobuty says.

"Meeting sonnen put us into a situation where we're not just able to use the sun's power -- we're able to manage it. And that means homes that make a difference," he adds.

Designing net-zero energy homes with sonnen and Google

A few minutes south of the Sunshine Skyway, a quiet industrial park in Manatee County houses one of the most tech-savvy model homes on the market. The Hunters Point model operates like an Alexa-equipped research lab: souped up on solar power stored by a sonnen battery, and smart-connected through Google Home.

The guest Murphy bed folds up into the wall to create a desk space under the shelves.Gobuty says that while a fully net-zero home, in the sense that a home creates more energy than it generates, is not yet a guarantee, the Hunters Point research and design center gets closer by the day to achieving its goal of harnessing the potential for solar surplus -- especially as solar panel hardware being made available shrinks in size, while growing mightier in capacity.

"In California, they have peaker plants that only operate during peak times, during which they're running on diesel and gas. That's a disaster in terms of sustainability. We're more well-managed out here because of our smaller population and size. People in California are looking to us and saying 'Can we replicate [Hunters Point]?' My answer is: 'Of course you'll be able to -- but first, we have to really figure it out, here'," says Gobuty.

Enter the sonnen-powered, Google Smart Hunters Point home.

As Gobuty explains it: The sonnen battery system is designed to optimize the use of solar panel-generated power by storing excess solar energy that is produced during the hours when it cannot be used. The average household uses the most electricity during the morning and evening, with midday usage bottoming out during the hours when the sun is at its peak. By storing this excess of midday-generated solar energy for later use, the sonnen system greatly reduces the home's reliance on the public power grid during peak consumption times. 

Hunters Point homes marry sonnen's innovative storage system with Google Nest tech to create smartly sustainable homes. These Google Energy Smart Homes include Nest thermostats, WiFi smoke detectors, indoor and outdoor cameras, Nest-aware alarm systems, and remotely controlled door locks that are controlled by the Google Home Hub, which works with the sonnen battery to optimize each individual home's energy use. 

"Sonnen is working with Google to make a seamless experience. The Nest system creates your pattern. It knows when you come home, so it's an intelligence inside the home that will pull power at certain times based on your needs," Gobuty explains.

It takes a village: Building a sonnen community

The Hunters Point project -- named after the 1800s village that would become Cortez -- calls for 86 homes and a complex of 62 hotel-style lodgings, a 48 boat docks, a clubhouse and a hook-to-plate bistro, which Gobuty notes will be All homes will be built to the same layout with a small selection of styles.operated by Cortez's historic A.P. Bell Fish Company.

Hunters Point homes will start at $400,000 and are pre-furnished in four interior design schemes that range from modern to nautical. Each design centers eco-sustainability and space efficiency, because Gobuty says he doesn't want to build McMansions -- nor does he believe today's homebuyer wants them. 

The 3,000-square-foot properties provide ample living space without being ostentatious and are designed to encourage open-air living. Hunters Point homes include a two-car "Florida basement" garage, a second-level living space with 800-square-feet of covered deck, and 600-square-feet of sky deck. Although the homes will be connected to the public power grid, they will be built to maximize solar power and thus significantly reduce homeowners' energy footprint. 

Gobuty describes the homes as eco-minded, contemporary interpretations of the "Florida Cracker" style structures that were originally built on Cortez, and encourages homebuyers to learn about the value of clean solar energy because, he believes, "the more you know, the more you'll want one." 

"It's all about education. It's the idea: 'I'm making a conscious decision, not only to have a great home and location but to do something good.' I think we're putting our money where our mouth is -- we stipulated the kind of homes we're building, and we stipulated they're going to be energy efficient, net-zero homes -- is an important promise," Gobuty says.

Addressing traffic concerns, Gobuty notes that PEARL Homes is currently working with Tesla to offer cars in a pooling system for Hunters Point homeowners' use. sonnen an electric battery charging station that can send excess energy back to the FP&L grid. Hunters Point has also earmarked one of the community's boat slips to be used for a water taxi service. Both efforts aim to reduce automobile traffic on Cortez.

At Hunters Point, Gobuty envisions an opportunity to change the way not just homes, but entire communities are built in Florida, and around the U.S., by looking toward the future of solar energy: from the vantage point of historic Cortez and with the help of green-savvy European tech.

"This isn't a time for McMansions. The state of Florida is so dependent on home-building -- it's a huge part of our culture -- but I wanted to show that we can do something different. Hunters Point is just the start of what we hope will eventually be the standard in sustainable homebuilding," Gobuty says.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.