As usual this time of year, the desert called and I answered. But this time, in addition to my search for flora, fauna and solitude granted only by places (mostly) untouched by human hands, I took a side trip into eco-technology.
The western reaches of the Coachella Valley are defined by the 10,833 feet of Mt. San Jacinto to the south and San Gorgonio Mtn. (11,503 ft.) to the north. Regular travelers on the I-10 out of Banning are familiar with this terrain, one of the deepest canyons in the land, and its multitude of wind turbines decorating some 25,000 acres of hilly and flat and ferociously windy hardscrabble.
Where better to site Windmill Tours, a 90-minute-ish introduction to how visionaries and engineers cultivated a meteorological phenomenon known as the Venturi effect into energy that powers dishwashers, cellphone chargers and big-screen TVs throughout California?
The San Gorgonio Wind Park is the oldest wind farm in the U.S., said our guide Randy Buckmaster, established in 1979. I was the only Californian in our group of nine, whose other members hailed from British Columbia, Wisconsin and Arizona. They have wind in those places, too, but ours comes with a side of western whiptail lizards, brittlebush and a nerdtastic narrative about how we harvested it first, and do it best.
The tour began in the trailer headquarters of Windmill Tours, with a brief account of the evolution of wind turbine design. Although they're colloquially referred to as "mills," these tall harvesters are really turbines. Mills generally pump water and grind grain; turbines convert wind energy into mechanical energy.
The power source is heat rising from the desert floor that meets the cooler coastal air forced through the mountains, creating the Venturi effect that renders consistent winds ranging from a few miles an hour to 80 mph -- as fast as a category 1 hurricane.
We learn that the earliest turbines required individual operators working a single daily shift and had to be directionally adjusted via bearings; today's 24-hour models move independently over 360 degrees and are adjusted via sensors talking to computers talking to weather stations. And I use the term "talking" loosely because I couldn't get past algebra, much less remedial mechanical engineering.
One model, circa 1982, behaved like a weathervane, getting pushed around so much that sometimes the blades banged into the tower, thus earning the descriptor "down wind and dumb." In 1982, a typical turbine generated 25 kilowatts of power; today's state-of the-art Vestas V90, which sports three 140-foot blades atop a tower 300 feet high, produces 3,000 kilowatts per hour. Over the course of a year, according to David Hixon, president of Windmill Tours, a single Vestas V90 would produce enough power to supply 1,500 typical homes.
In the last three decades, tower and blade materials have evolved through hit-and-miss experiments, and generators evolved from set to adaptable speeds. All that R&D was expensive, and several companies went bankrupt trying to wrangle the natural desert resource into a profitable commodity. Among the red-ledger owners was Enron, whose name was chiseled off the right side of the sign (pictured) after its dramatic demise in 2002.
Since the end of last year, investing in wind power has become even trickier, thanks to the expiration of production tax credits; like the wind itself, who knows when they'll reappear. If you're game, a new turbine will run you about $3 million. Don't forget to secure the land rights first.
If you just want to power your backyard hot tub, as of last week you could get an early '80s model on eBay for $10K. Some assembly required.
Today, all of the 40-some wind projects that compose the San Gorgonio Wind Park contract with power station owner Southern California Edison, which moves the power onto the grid. According to Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA), the electricity produced annually by all the wind farms in the Coachella Valley is equivalent to the total amount consumed in the same period by all of the households in Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Riverside, Anaheim and San Bernardino.
That blows. In a good way.
Wind lovers do a complicated dance. Turbines sit on land owned by someone who leases it to the farmers who sell their product to the power company, which also employs heliotropic solar arrays and a natural gas facility here to provide energy flexibility for us hungry consumers.
We ventured outside to the climate-controlled bus that moved among various wind installations illustrating what Randy had told us. Windmill Tours is the only company with access to these private lands. There were no tours at all until the turn of the millennium, when wind energy producers wanted to promote their business and edify the public. But after 9/11, they got hinky about looky-loos getting too close to the machines, and ceased all tours as a security risk.
Another tour outfit brings visitors to the periphery of some farms, but strictly on public roads. If you're seeking a more intimate connection, Windmill Tours is the only option. You won't go inside a tower (and you probably wouldn't want to unless you lack the claustrophobia gene), but you get close enough to see how friggin' big and powerful these things are.
Today, 2,100 turbines, give or take, populate the valley. Their numbers will wane, Randy explained, as older machines outlive their usefulness and larger, more powerful models go online. Fewer machines will generate more power, but the footprint of the whole project won't change because the larger the machine, the more space is required to ensure that its blades don't steal wind from their neighbor.
We literally see the growth of wind energy, with towers ranging from 65 to 300 feet, their blades as short as 15 feet and as long as 140. According to Palm Springs Life, older models spin at 600 to 700 rotations per minute, while the more efficient, newer ones manage 45.
Randy told us about the accidents that contributed to the wind energy body of knowledge, how that metal tower over there fell down, and why blades on new machines look different from the older ones. It was difficult to hear him when he looked away because, you know, it's windy out here. Wind is loud.
Some people object to that when wind farms are installed or proposed near their homes. Another problem is that spinning blades kill birds. These issues rage in California's other two commercial wind farms farther north, in the Tehachapi Pass and Altamont Pass. But not so much here, because this is the desert, and birds aren't much interested in a neighborhood without water. The noise isn't an issue because no one lives nearby. The day of our tour, Randy estimated the wind to be about 20 mph, an average day, and it was significantly louder than the noise from any turbine.
Shading our eyes from the desert sun and wind, we tilted our necks back to take in the enormity of the largest machines currently installed in the Coachella Valley -- two Vestas V90s. They're so big it's difficult to capture them in the same photographic frame as the smaller, older machines nearby.
Their gracefully bowed blades are beautiful sky sculpture. Randy said that although the three-blade configuration is the most common among wind farmers, "They did studies that showed that people found two blades more attractive to look at."
Ah, the ubiquitous, anonymous "they" ... clearly "they" were not standing at the base of a V90 to conduct "their" ridiculous research.
Like all machines, turbines require maintenance and repair. Sometimes, they're shut down while the mechanism, enclosed in a compartment as large as a Windmill Tours bus, receives attention. Sometimes, blades require patching, a job performed by some lunatic who crawls out onto the motionless limb.
Imagine the view.
Windmilltours.com, (800) 531-5834.
Photos: Ellen Alperstein