It’s a sad day at San Gorgonio Pass Wind Park on the northwest outskirts of Palm Springs, CA, laments Randy Buckmaster, our guide from Palm Springs Windmill Tours.
Wind – the element that makes one of the deepest mountain passes in the country one of the windiest places in southern California, and justifies the very existence of this facility– is a no-show.
Spread before me on desert flatlands and ridges as far as I can see are 2,100 windmills, or wind turbines as they’re more professionally known. These windmills harness the wind to help power homes and businesses in the surrounding Coachella Valley and westward to Los Angeles.
Sleek and gleaming white, the Goliath-sized wind turbines stand in near-military formation, albeit with a few “soldiers” battered from wear, occasional empty spaces where others have been removed following their useful life, and some random fallen parts abandoned like erstwhile monuments.
Ideally, the windmills’ blades should be spinning at a steady pace, yet they remain at a virtual standstill this morning.
Randy shrugs and shakes his head with resigned bemusement, given this region boasts some of the best and most consistent wind in the country. Ironically, he notes, the previous day had plenty of wind…too much, actually.
Such are the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Bill, our friends Keith and Carole, and I are in Palm Springs for our annual winter getaway. We’ve joined Palm Springs Windmills Tour, the only tour company endorsed by the Desert Wind Energy Association, to walk among windmills.
Even without sufficient wind to activate the windmills, plenty is happening.
Drama radiates from this sweeping landscape. An almost-unheard-of three-day stretch of rain the prior week has nurtured growth of a lush, vibrant green groundcover that flabbergasts the locals. Ringing us in to the north are the San Bernardino Mountains, punctuated by snow-capped Mount San Gorgonio, the highest in Southern California at 11,500 feet. Neighboring San Jacinto Peak in the San Jacinto Mountains is barely shy of 11,000 feet and also draped in snow.
Upping the visual ante is the assemblage of windmills at San Gorgonio Pass Wind Park, a fixture on this site since the wind business regained popularity in the late 1970s. The towers look as if they’d sprouted organically from the ground like the giant beanstalk of fairy tale lore. If I didn’t know otherwise, I could easily mistake the project for a vast art installation.
My mind wanders back to a trip a few years ago to Amsterdam. Bill and I had ventured into the countryside on a cloudy day to explore historic Dutch windmills once used to pump water to reclaim low-lying land, grind corn, and saw timber. Constructed largely of native brick or thatched with reed, those sturdy, massive, structures with sailcloths attached to lattice frameworks conveyed a forceful aesthetic and presence that complemented the flat, wide horizon. They, too, seemed as integral to their environment as their modern-day counterparts do in the desert.
Windy or not now, the millions of residents, workers, and visitors who rely on the output from the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Park happily are experiencing no interruptions in service.
This “Grand Central Station of electricity in the valley” produces from wind, solar, and compressed natural gas, making it a cohesive clean energy center. In addition, power comes in from various sources to the east, and it’s all distributed via the on-site Devers substation.
Wind power, we learn, is playing an ever-increasing role in the state’s energy portfolio.
Wandering amid windmills at San Gorgonio Pass Wind Park
In the visitors’ center, Randy points out photos on the wall of experimental and bygone machines. “The good, the bad, the ugly, the flops,” he calls them, although I sense respect in his voice as he introduces each one. Despite the relatively simple process of production – wind power turns into mechanical power via a generator which turns into electrical power – trials and tribulations beset early efforts to generate electricity on a mass scale.
Various entities, including the government, own both machines and land in San Gorgonio Pass Wind Park. The property is always in transition as wind research and technology evolve. Today’s windmills are smart machines operating autonomously thanks to computers. The nacelles, housing covers for gear components and the part to which blades are attached, can turn a full 360-degree circle on top of their towers, allowing blades to catch wind from any direction. In addition, machines stay braked until they detect enough wind to begin movement. When too much wind occurs, say around 60 miles per hour, machines shut down for self-protection.
As Randy leads us outdoors past exhibits of restored parts, we glance at windmills still idling in the distance.
“Wind is all that makes them go, and it needs to be blowing at 8-10 miles per hour,” he says. “No little gerbils are running around in wheels making them start up.”
Boarding a shuttle, we drive into the heart of San Gorgonio Pass Wind Park. We parallel Interstate 10, a truck-clogged highway that speaks to its importance to interstate commerce. Our tires kick up dust as we bump over the ruts in Dillon Road. Surely pioneers in the 1870s felt even more jarring when this route was the northernmost stagecoach trail in the valley.
San Gorgonio Pass Wind Park is crane-your-neck country. Whether maneuvering to snag a better view from windows in the van or when we exit and approach the largest windmills on foot, it pays to look up.
We stand in the shadow of a 1.5-megawatt windmill, hands shielding our squinting eyes. We position ourselves just so to let the intersection point of the blades block out the sun. The turbine stands 213 feet tall, measures 13 feet across its base, and sends 690 volts AC down the tower into a transformer that steps up the electricity to 34,500 volts.
Dominating in appearance, the 1.5-megawatt windmills are a mere prelude to the even more sky-scraping 70-ton, 3-megawatt windmills. They lord over from 262 feet and with blades outstretched 144 feet.
Windmill gazing in the desert works up a thirst, which we quench at the aptly named Windmill Market. According to the sign above the entrance, Windmill Market sells the best date shakes in the Coachella Valley. Dates are the largest cash crop, with 90 percent of dates consumed in the U.S. grown here, so that’s a bold claim. They might be right, however, for business is bustling.
We queue up for complimentary servings of the thick, frosty drinks crafted from vanilla ice cream and fresh medjool date puree. Randy clues us in: their success lies in hand-dipping real ice cream, rather than using machines and lower-fat ice milk. Milkshakes aren’t my drink of choice, but this one’s a winner, the dates adding a distinctive earthy sweetness.
As I head back to the shuttle slurping dregs through my straw, my bangs rustle across my forehead. Wind! I quickly scan the nearest windmills. Sure enough, blades atop many turbines are rotating at a leisurely clip. Windmills will be windmills. Randy is pleased.
And that’s the way the wind blows.