Ray Coulter got into the wind energy business in the Coachella Valley in the early 1980s, after an oil panic in 1979 sent crude prices skyrocketing to then-record highs of $39 per barrel.
The federal government started pushing alternative energy development with aggressive incentives, and wind turbines suddenly became one heck of a great tax shelter.
“We started out selling a small wind turbine to consumers for $98,000,” said Coulter, who worked with valley wind pioneer Fred Noble at Wintec Energy.
“The consumer got a huge tax write-off, about two-thirds in tax savings,” he recalled. “In one month, we built an entire wind farm – 72 machines.”
Tax benefits aside, the first turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass whipped up plenty of controversy among valley residents and officials.
Desert Sun articles from the early 1980s mix reports on a flood of new projects being approved with pieces about rising local opposition and questions about the machines’ safety, reliability and environmental impacts.
Residents complained about the noise the machines made, called them ugly and “visual pollution” and questioned how much electricity they would actually produce.
Output was a legitimate concern since the early turbines often generated less power than promised.
Residents living near the pass also said the machines were lowering property values and asked for no-turbine buffer zones around their communities. One study suggested painting the turbines in “desert colors” to soften their visual impact.
Palm Springs sued Riverside County to ensure windmills would not be built too close to the roadway on Highway 111, leading to an out-of-court settlement increasing the setback from 500 feet to two-thirds of a mile.
Coulter recalled making presentations to local community groups to try to settle qualms about the machines, but Riverside County ultimately passed a windmill noise ordinance.
Fritz Noble, Fred Noble’s son and now director of real estate development for Wintec, recalled that some of the early windmills had design defects and had to be replaced.
But, he said, “Over time, as the second and third generation of windmills went in the early to mid-1990s, their operation proved that they were not noisy and that they produced significant and reliable amounts of energy. “By the late 1990s, we were drawing significant tourist interest and public opinion of the windmills increasingly became favorable.”
The windmills in the pass had gone from invaders to icons.
New concerns arise
Recent repowering projects in North Palm Springs have been approved with little public comment, said Craig Ewing, the city’s director of planning.
“Our concern has to do with onsite drainage flood control,” he said.
“We’re pretty happy with the way these things are going. They’re in an area that doesn’t generate a lot of public interest, and fewer of them are replacing more of them. We see this as a net benefit.”
Certainly as technology improved, the machines have became less noisy, more graceful and more reliable, but environmental groups and some residents still have concerns.
Joan Taylor, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s California-Nevada desert energy committee, said new studies are needed on bird deaths caused by the taller turbines.
“Songbirds or raptors aren’t looking ahead; they’re looking down,” she said. “We need a baseline. There’s no publicly available information.”
BLM officials said new studies are in the works.
Meanwhile, high desert residents are mobilizing to oppose a potential wind project on public land in Pipes Canyon near Pioneertown.
Element Power, a global renewable energy company with U.S. headquarters in Portland, Ore., installed two meteorological towers in the canyon last year to study wind patterns.
“Repowering in San Gorgonio is better than creating new projects where we have (wildlife) corridors,” said April Sall, conservation director for the Wildlands Conservancy, which also owns land in Pipes Canyon. “It still comes down to siting. It’s time we got answers.”
Coulter, now 88, has retired from the wind business but still owns land in the pass where rows of old turbines were recently replaced with towering 1.5-megawatt machines.
“Before there were wind turbines, I would go out to the site and the cold wind was blowing across the desert and I thought it was an inhospitable site,” he recalled on a recent visit to the new turbines.
“Then I built wind farms, and it was a beautiful site because we were making electricity from something that would otherwise go to waste.
“I felt a really good feeling by having done that.”
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