“Guess how many windmills there are in Palm Springs,” Tom the tour guide asks at the onset of our exploration of the “greener” side of Palm Springs.
It’s a trick question; the answer is zero.
“There are no windmills, only wind turbines,” he explains.
And there are about 2,700 of them in San Gorgonio Wind Park — the oldest wind farm in the United States.
A wind turbine is a device that converts wind energy into mechanical energy, which is then used to produce electricity. As heat rises from the desert floor, it creates a low-pressure area filled by the cool air blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, 90 miles west, explains Tom, who has 30-plus years experience working in energy farms.
“As the wind rushes toward the desert, it is forced between the mountains (Mount San Gorgonio at 11,503 feet and Mount San Jacinto at 10,833 feet), creating a Venturi effect — similar to placing your finger on a garden hose,” he demonstrates.
Wind speeds in the pass have reached 80 mph — only 5 mph faster than a Category 1 hurricane. The area harvests enough wind energy to power about 300,000 homes. "That’s three times the amount of power we need to run Palm Springs,” Tom says.
On this Best of the Best Tour (www.thebestofthebesttours.com), you’ll depart from downtown and embark on a two-hour informative journey in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. Tom shares his wealth of knowledge about the local history en route.
(Fun fact: After the last lake in the desert, Lake Cahuilla, evaporated, the Native Americans discovered shells from the ancient seabed, called conch. They called the area Conchia Valley, which then become Coachella — “the name means nothing,” he notes.)
At the wind park, you’ll learn about everything from the area’s geology, the development, design and evolution of wind turbines, energy conversion, environmental issues, economics, and what happens when there is no wind.
Along the way, you’ll see the contrast between the old models built in the 1980s and the more efficient, modern-day turbines; cross over the Andreas Fault Line; and drive through the Jackrabbit Homestead. This educational experience is also an opportunity to drink in the beauty that abounds in the desert, from scenic views to the flora and wildlife.
Showing as much enthusiasm about wind energy as one possibly can, Tom is eager to answer as many questions as you can turn out. To experience the most activity, visit between January and April; fierce winter winds produce the most energy.
Wind Turbine Tour
What to bring: Plenty of water, a camera, and a tip for your tour guide.
When to go: January through April shows the most activity; winds are slowest in October and November.
What you won’t see: The inside of the wind turbine.
Number of wind turbines in Palm Springs: 2,700
1980: the year the first turbine went up
Height: Between 65 and 299 feet
Blade length: Between 15 and 140 feet
Rotations per minute: The older models make 600 – 700 rotations per minute; the newer models, 45 rotations.
Number of birds killed by wind turbines: 3 of out 100,000
Fun Fact: When there is no wind, solar panels and geothermal energy at the Salton Sea are relied upon as alternative green energy sources.