If you’ve ever driven from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, you know you’re getting close when you see the wind farms. Twenty minutes west of the desert resort town, in the gap between Southern California’s two highest mountains, thousands of turbines fill the landscape on either side of Interstate 10, taking advantage of a natural wind tunnel.
Some wind machines are hundreds of feet tall, with wingspans as long as a football field. Others are tiny by comparison, with clunky lattice towers and spinning rotors that wouldn’t stretch from home plate to the pitcher’s mound on a baseball diamond.
The iconic landscape could change dramatically in the coming years.
Already, energy developers here have replaced some aging wind turbines with state-of-the-art models. The newer turbines are much bigger, and far more powerful, than the machines first installed in the 1980s. That means fewer wind turbines are needed to create the same amount of energy. In fact, fewer turbines can create more energy.
But many 1980s-era turbines are still standing in the San Gorgonio Pass, the gateway to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. Developers have an incentive to begin replacing the older machines before the end of 2019, when a federal tax credit is set to expire.
Even if the federal tax credit doesn’t inspire immediate action, the San Gorgonio Pass of the future could generate much more electricity than it does today, despite having far fewer wind turbines. Wintec Energy founder and president Fred Noble, who built the area’s first wind farm in the 1980s, thinks a full “repowering” could reduce the number of wind turbines in and around Palm Springs from more than 2,000 to only 600 or 700.
“This industry started here. And then we went out and populated the world,” Noble said in a recent interview. “And now these machines that are coming up on 25, 30 years old have done their job and need to be replaced.”
Fewer wind turbines could also mean clearer views of the mountains. The remaining turbines would be taller, but there would be much more space between them.
“As you go bigger, it also opens up the viewshed,” Noble said.
There are plenty of reasons for energy companies to repower aging wind farms in the San Gorgonio Pass and other parts of California, including a new law requiring the state to get all of its electricity from climate-friendly sources by 2045. Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group, sees unique benefits to replacing old wind turbines with newer ones.
“You can get twice as much energy or more out of the same site,” Rader said. “It’s good for California if we can squeeze twice as much energy out of the same land area.”
But the repowering of the San Gorgonio Pass also faces obstacles. It’s cheaper to build new turbines at undeveloped sites than to replace old ones. A statewide slowdown in renewable energy development could discourage companies from upgrading the Palm Springs wind farms before the federal tax credit expires. California could also meet its climate-friendly energy goals by importing wind power from Wyoming or New Mexico.
“Economics is really number one at the end of the day, and patience to get the project done,” said Florian Zerhusen, chief executive of BayWa r.e. Wind, a San Diego-based company that recently bought and sold hundreds of wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass. “There is a need to take these 30-plus-year-old turbines out and replace them, clean up the valley. But the economics have to work, and you have to have patience.”
Wind farms were eyesores, then icons
Many Coachella Valley residents didn’t take kindly to the wind industry when it first arrived in the San Gorgonio Pass nearly four decades ago. Industrial energy generation was seen as incompatible with the valley’s reputation as a relaxed tourism destination.
In 1985, Palm Springs sued the Bureau of Land Management to block further wind development on federal land north of the city, and to try to force the removal of some existing turbines. Then-Mayor Frank Bogert said the machines were “ruining the views of the mountains and desert floor and creating a living hell for residents who live near them.” A few years later, Palm Springs city council member Bill Foster wrote in a Desert Sun opinion piece that the wind turbines had been “as damaging to Palm Springs visually as strip mining has been to towns and villages in Kentucky and West Virginia.”
Palm Springs eventually learned to live with the wind industry, annexing much of the land beneath today’s wind farms to bring in tax revenue. The turbines contributed to the state’s renewable energy goals and became an iconic part of the desert landscape. The Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism features a photo of a wind farm on the “About Palm Springs” page of its website, with snow-capped Mt. San Jacinto in the background.
Today, the wind farms are a political winner locally.
In 2014, then-Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet called the San Gorgonio Pass “the most environmentally safe wind energy site in North America.”
“I am proud of the significant role Palm Springs has played in pioneering wind energy,” Pougnet said, as part of a statement released by the advocacy group Environment California. “I look forward to how advances in wind energy technology will allow energy producers to expand the important role they play in our clean energy supply.”
It’s no surprise why developers wanted to build near Palm Springs: The gap between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains is a natural wind tunnel, with average wind speeds between 15 and 20 miles per hour. Even better, the mountain pass isn’t far from millions of energy-hungry homes and businesses in the Los Angeles area.
“All things considered, this is the best place in the world for wind energy,” Fred Noble said. “No snow, sea level, no ice, very good wind, wind in the top 5 percent of what you’d find anywhere. And a big electrical infrastructure that can take the power.”
Noble’s company built the area’s first wind farm in 1982, putting up 212 turbines on a plot of land he owned north of Interstate 10 and west of Indian Canyon Drive. Over the next decade, energy developers built more than 4,000 wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass. Even more turbines were built at two other wind hot spots in California, the Altamont Pass east of the Bay Area and the Tehachapi Pass east of Bakersfield.
After the country’s first big wind farms were built in California, the industry boomed nationwide. There are now more than 58,000 turbines in the United States, with some of the biggest clusters in Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas, according to a map created by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Wind farms produced 6.3 percent of the electricity generated by U.S. power plants in 2017. In California, 6.2 percent of the electricity generated by in-state power plants came from wind farms last year.
Noble’s company, Wintec Energy, eventually replaced its 212 original turbines with 35 larger machines. Those were later replaced with five even larger machines. Today, the five turbines generate six times as much energy as the original 212, Noble said.
“It’s just the difference between a Model T Ford and a Porsche,” he said.
In 1992, the San Gorgonio Pass wind turbines produced about 550,000 megawatt-hours of electricity. By 2017, production had risen to nearly 1.5 million megawatt-hours.
The same trend could continue into the future.
According to data compiled by federal agencies and the wind industry, there are about 2,300 wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass. Nearly 450 were built this century, but more than 1,600 were built in the 1980s. The older machines are mostly clustered between Highway 111 and Interstate 10, and north of the freeway near Whitewater.
Nancy Rader, who leads the California Wind Energy Association, think the federal data may underestimate the number of aging wind turbines that stand to be replaced. Her own count shows 324 megawatts worth of wind turbines in the Palm Springs area that were built from 1980 through 1995, compared to 160 megawatts in the federal data.
Many of those machines are still in good shape. Rader compared them to old cars.
“You can keep an old car running forever if you just keep it in good shape. Something wears out, replace it,” she said. “A lot of those old turbines, especially the Danish ones, are like that. They’re workhorses, and you can keep them operating a long time.”
Still, wind turbines are generally designed to last for 25 to 30 years, to match the length of a typical utility power purchase contract, Rader said.
“They’re really designed to have that life, and after that, they do start falling apart,” she said. “That’s how long bolts are designed to last.”
An uncertain future for wind in California
Over time, it gets more expensive to keep old wind turbines running – sometimes so expensive that it doesn’t make sense to keep operating them without a guaranteed contract to sell the electricity. So it’s not surprising that as utility contracts signed in the 1980s have expired in recent years, some turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass have stopped spinning. At the site of Fred Noble’s original wind farm, two dozen machines have sat idle since their contract with Southern California Edison ran out in 2015.
“We can’t get a contract that makes them viable to run,” Noble said.
Despite California’s ambitious push to replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources, developers say there’s been a slowdown in new contracts for wind and solar projects. They cite several reasons for the slowdown, including the fact that the state’s big utility companies have already bought most of the energy they need to meet the state’s next target, which requires 33 percent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.
Another factor is the growth of locally run energy programs, known as community choice aggregators or CCAs. From the Bay Area to Los Angeles, cities and counties are getting into the energy business, giving people an alternative to Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric. By some estimates, the three investor-owned utilities could lose 80 percent of their market share in the next decade. The uncertainty makes it difficult for the big utilities to sign new long-term contracts.
CCAs are making plans to buy lots of wind and solar power. But critics say CCAs have mostly signed short-term contracts to buy renewable energy from existing projects. The problem, they say, is that CCAs don’t yet have the credit history to sign long-term contracts and get new projects built – or replace aging wind turbines with new models.
New renewable energy purchases are “basically at a standstill” in California, according to V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, an advocacy group. And even when the logjam breaks, it might make more sense for utilities to buy low-cost wind power from out of state. That’s because the best wind hot spots in California – including the San Gorgonio Pass – have already been developed, and it’s cheaper to build new wind farms than repower old ones.
“The New Mexico wind is really convenient for us to access,” White said.
In theory, now is an ideal time to repower aging wind farms. Congress voted in 2015 to extend a federal tax credit for wind energy, but on a schedule that would phase out the tax credit over several years. Companies can get 60 percent of the original tax credit for new or repowered wind projects that start construction in 2018, and 40 percent for projects that start construction in 2019. Then the incentive will disappear entirely.
In other states, developers are taking advantage of the last few years of the tax credit. A common practice is “partial repowering,” in which turbine owners replace key components on their machines to qualify for another 10 years of tax credit eligibility.
Nationwide, about 2,000 megawatts of wind turbines were partially repowered in 2017, all in Iowa and Texas, according to a report from the federal Department of Energy. The repowered turbines can often produce as much as 40 percent more energy, according to Anthony Logan, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.
But in California, the expiring tax credit may not provide enough incentive for energy companies to tear out their old wind turbines and replace them with new ones.
“We need to at least begin construction on new wind or repowered wind by the end of next year. And nobody’s going to do that if we don’t have contracts,” White said.
Wind turbines and solar panels – and maybe batteries, too
Another roadblock to repowering wind farms is more technical: The economics improve with scale, as do the benefits of the federal tax credit. The thousands of wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass are owned by many different companies, and it can be difficult for a company with just a few machines to make the economics of repowering work.
“It can get done, but it really takes someone with deep pockets to go in and make it happen,” said Florian Zerhusen, chief executive of BayWa r.e. Wind.
Fred Noble, who built the first wind farm in the San Gorgonio Pass, believes the future of repowering is “pretty much in the hands of the large utility companies,” including NextEra Energy Resources. The Florida-based company is one of the country’s largest renewable energy developers, and in 2011 it replaced 115 turbines from the 1990s with 33 new ones in the San Gorgonio Pass. NextEra owns another 15-megawatt wind farm in the area, but a spokesperson declined to comment on any future repowering plans.
Officials at the Bureau of Land Management say two companies are in the preliminary stages of applying for repower permits on federal land in the San Gorgonio Pass. New York-based Terra-Gen plans to take down 126 turbines and replace them with seven newer models, according to Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Stephen Razo. The other company with repower plans, Brookfield Renewable, acquired a 30-megawatt wind farm in the Palm Springs area in 2012.
Fred Noble has now sold most of his wind turbines. But he still owns the land beneath them. On a recent afternoon, he drove his four-wheel-drive SUV across the the rough dirt roads that crisscross that land, north of Interstate 10 and west of Indian Avenue.
Noble passed a small solar farm before arriving at two of the four biggest wind turbines in the Palm Springs area. When the tips of the blades reach their highest point, the machines are 410 feet tall. Their power capacity is three megawatts apiece – 120 times more powerful than each of the 212 machines Noble originally built nearby in 1982.
Noble feels certain the San Gorgonio Pass will be populated with more machines like these in the future – and more solar panels too, and batteries to store the energy they produce, for times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. He thinks it’s possible the federal tax credit will still be revived, as it has been in the past. But more than that, he knows California has made a commitment to climate-friendly energy. He’s confident the Palm Springs area still has a role to play in meeting that commitment.
“I think it’ll get repowered because the wind is so good here. And I think it’ll be with solar, because that’s what makes sense,” Noble said. “At the end of the day, what is going to get built out here is combining wind and solar and batteries.”
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