Like the neon lights of Las Vegas, or the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, Greater Palm Springs has its own signature calling card — the iconic windmill farms on either side of Interstate-10.
The windmills that dot the hillside and give a welcoming three-bladed wave to visitors have become synonymous with the oasis.
They serve as a welcome sign, letting visitors know they are about to arrive at their destination and residents know they are almost home.
But many folks don’t really know how they work, why they look like they do, and why there are so many of them.
Wind turbines have been around for about 130 years, but along I-10 in Greater Palm Springs, they have only been part of the landscape for the past 40 years.
The wind giants have become a famous backdrop for selfies, photoshoots and movies. These iconic wind turbines provide much needed green renewable energy.
Experience the Wind Giants
It’s awe-inspiring standing next to a towering windmill with blades twirling high in the air.
For the curious, there are excursions by Palm Springs Windmill Tours, located on Wintec Energy property, that takes people behind the fence and gets them up close to a wind turbine.
The tours, led by well-versed tour guides, are educational and fun - and include the history and overview of renewable energy. Before boarding a tour bus for a drive around the wind farm, guests take a brief walk through an implement yard that showcases various blades and transmissions.
Tour guests are also transported to a hillside location where a majestic vista of all the wind turbines can be seen twirling below - transforming the power of the wind into energy.
Wintec Energy built the first wind farm in the area in 1982 north of I-10. The company now only owns one wind turbine on their large swath of land and leases out property to various energy companies.
The wind turbines are strategically placed on both sides of Interstate-10 to take advantage of the 15-20 miles per hour wind that weaves through the San Gorgonio Pass - also referred to as the Banning Pass - in between the San Jacinto Mountains that hug Palm Springs and the San Gorgonio Mountains to the north. To get the blades moving only about 7 to 10 miles per hour of speed is required.
At one point there were upwards of 5,000 machines spinning in the wind, but now, because of the efficiency of models, only about 2,100 dot the desert landscape. It’s anticipated that in the future as technology improves and even more efficient machines are erected, only about 1,000 will be needed to produce the same amount of power as is currently generated.
Wind turbines convert the kinetic power of the wind into mechanical energy which is then converted into electrical power that helps stabilize the energy grid.
If there was an X-ray of the ground, underneath it would look like a spiderweb of cables leading from each windmill to a substation where the electricity is converted to high voltage power which is transmitted to an energy grid that eventually distributes power to consumers. The power generated by the wind turbines helps provide a boost to the power grid when demand is high in Southern California.
If you drive by the wind turbines and they’re not spinning, they are likely turned off to avoid wasting power. Currently, there is no way to store extra power generated, but In the future, batteries at the substations could store unused power generated by the wind turbines. That’s what’s next for the area in wind technology innovations.
The biggest turbines in the desert have a capacity of 3 megawatts which can generate enough power to run more than 1,500 homes. Each one is about 500 feet tall - including the stem and blade. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty at 305 feet.
Wind power, as a green and renewable energy source, is steadily becoming a popular alternative to burning fossil fuels, especially with the requirement that the state use climate-friendly electricity sources by 2045.
According to Wind Solar Alliance, wind power is the largest source of renewable generating capacity in the country, is the second fastest-growing source of electricity in the world and is on track to provide about 10 percent of the countries electricity by 2020.
Across the desert, there is a mix of older wind turbines, that have the lattice sides and look like mini Eiffel Towers. The newer ones are much taller and sleeker with a single tower and three huge blades that run the length of a football field. Three is the magic number in wind energy. After trial and error with two or four blades, it’s been proven that three blades work the best.
Many of the older ones are broken and stand stagnant. The typical life of a turbine is about 30-35 years. A likely development in the years to come is that all the small ones, particularly in the field south of the I-10 will be replaced by fewer, larger ones.
And while it’s anticipated that because of technology less wind turbines will be needed to contribute to the state’s clean energy commitment, the iconic giants are here to stay. There just may be fewer of them waving their circular hello to visitors in the future.
Explore the great outdoors in Greater Palm Springs with these thrilling activities perfect for the whole family. Adventure awaits in the oasis!