They’re elegant, swooping testaments to the promise of clean energy.
They’re noisy, clanking blights on a once-pristine desert landscape.
Opinions on the thousands of power-producing wind turbines spinning in the San Gorgonio pass are as varied as, well, the wind.
But one thing is certain.
Californians’ growing appetite for electricity means more demand for juice from dozens of newer, bigger windmills on the way – whether the people who live beneath them like it or not.
There are applications in Riverside County for 52 new turbines on various sites near the wind-whipped San Gorgonio Pass, where high winds squeeze through an opening between the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains. And last week the county board of supervisors approved two turbines on Whitewater hill that would stand 411 feet tall, higher than any other windmills in the region.
The Bureau of Land Management is also considering approval for as many as 58 new turbines in the area.
Another proposal would develop 150 megawatts worth of wind power on private land near Cabazon in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
“What is happening is older, smaller turbines are being replaced with larger turbines,” said Andy Linehan of Portland-based PPM Energy.
The firm plans to use about 45 turbines to generate 45 megawatts of power in the pass on land that had been the site of about 150 turbines generating the same amount of power.
The average home uses 1 megawatt a month.
Better technology is allowing wind power generators to use fewer quieter, but larger, turbines to generate the same amount of power as a higher number of older, smaller and noisier turbines.
“A wind turbine has probably had about as much improvement as your computer has in the past 20 years,” added Jan Johnson, a PPM spokesperson.
Bigger turbines mean fewer windmills in Banning Pass
As the number of windmills falls, their effectiveness and importance in maintaining California’s energy supply is increasing.
Since 1992, the number of turbines in the pass area has dropped from about 8,000 to 4,800, according to the American Wind Energy Association
Yet wind energy accounts for the largest slice of alternative energy flowing to Southern California Edison, the nation’s largest renewable energy purchaser. The firm buys more than 1,000 megawatts of wind energy annually and last year signed agreements to buy as much as 125 more megawatts annually for 20 years from pass-area providers.
Electricity generated here isn’t used exclusively to power the Coachella Valley.
“We were pretty much keeping the state from rolling blackouts,” said Chris Copeland of Wintec Energy of the power emergencies during a summer heat wave. “The wind was blowing at a real critical time for the state.”
The pass area can produce about 630 megawatts – enough to power roughly 140,000 to 190,000 homes – for the power grid, Copeland said.
The numbers are no comfort to people who live beneath wind turbines. In North Palm Springs, Painted Hills near Desert Hot Springs and around Whitewater many residents consider the turbines a nuisance.
“We used to think those little ones were big,” said Nancy Wright of Painted Hills, pointing to a row of older turbines on the ridge behind her home.
Wright said it is hard for people who don’t live by the turbines to understand the noise they make or how they impact views. And she supports the concept of generating power without burning fossil fuels.
“I’m not against windmills,” she said. “I’m against the visual blight, the lights at night.”
Wright said she thinks the windmills sometimes exceed county noise standards and suspects they are driving away birds that prey on rodents.
Two larger windmills recently went up on a hillside near Nancy Barling’s Painted Hills home. The new windmills dominate her view to the south and access roads to the turbine are visible on the hillside.
“I don’t think I’d want to see any more out here because we are surrounded by them,” said Barling.
Environmental groups also say the turbines can kill birds.
In Northern California at the Altamont Pass, thousands of bird deaths prompted environmental groups to sue to force changes at wind farms.
“I believe the problems here could be very similar,” said Jeff Morgan, of the Tahquitz Group of the Sierra Club in Palm Springs. “The windmill companies just say it is not a problem.”
The most recent study of the issue locally was several years ago.
Dick Anderson, a wildlife biologist, conducted the study, which was funded in part by the National Renewal Energy Lab in Golden, Colo.
“It is a pretty good place to build turbines, bird-wise,” Anderson said.
The study showed the windmills resulted in about one raptor death for every 40 megawatts of power generated, Anderson said.
“That may sound high but it’s not. It’s low,” said Anderson. “It turns out that San Gorgonio (Pass) really has very little bird activity.”
Clean energy source
The criticism stings windmill operators. They say they are only responding to demand from the public for clean sources of energy.
The operator behind the 411-foot turbines proposed for Whitewater hill and the proposal in the monument blamed negative community reaction and bad press for coloring the public perception of wind turbines.
Brad Adams of Whitewater Energy Corp. would only respond to questions by e-mail, saying he feared verbal comments would be taken out of context.
He said the county planning commission approved the two large turbines by a 5-0 vote but he didn’t elaborate on plans for the windmills the company wants to build on private land within the monument boundaries.
“Every time this project is commented on, we receive all of this correspondence and concern over a project that is nothing more than a proposal at this point,” Adams said via e-mail.
The turbine-peppered landscape in the pass is proof local governments have accommodated wind development. But the proposal for the newest, largest turbines is drawing scrutiny.
Residents sent letters to county supervisors urging them to scrutinize the proposal for the newer, larger turbines.
Supervisor Marion Ashley, whose district includes the western end of the Coachella Valley and the pass, said that’s exactly what he did before voting to approve the new windmills.
“I asked all the questions that had been raised,” said Ashley, who said the developer provided satisfactory answers.
Ashley said despite their size he thinks the new windmills won’t change views in the area much, considering they will be surrounded by many other turbines.
“It is like putting a couple more needles in a porcupine. I don’t think it is going to be perceptible enough to matter,” he said.
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