More than Just an Instagram Photo Op
Stretching up the hills on both sides of the San Gorgonio Pass, the windmills welcome visitors to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. The windmills, along with the I-10 Dinosaurs, have become an Instagram icon, one that young visitors to the Coachella Valley add to their feeds. As of today, there were 4,025 posts #palmspringswindmills
I booked a self-guided Palm Springs Windmill Tour, hoping to learn more about this form of alternative energy and take some Instagram-worthy images of my own. On the day I went, clouds loomed on the horizon. I hoped that they might add to my images. The closer we got to the Palm Springs Windmill Tour headquarters, the colder and windier it got. Needless to say, the cold and wind put a damper on my photo shoot. Instead, I decided to focus on the narrative of the self-guided tour as I huddled inside my car.
The San Gorgonio Pass is one of the Windiest Places in the U.S.
The San Gorgonio pass is located between Mount San Gorgonio to the north and Mount San Jacinto to the South.The desert’s hot air rises and the cooler air from the coast rushes in to replace it.
When the cool air travels through the San Gorgonio pass, it is compressed because the Pass measures only 4 miles across at its narrowest point. This funnels the wind and makes it blow stronger. Average annual wind speeds are 15-17 miles per hour (mph). This makes the San Gorgonio Pass consistently windy and a perfect site for windmills.
Modern windmills require 10-13 mph winds to turn. If the wind is too strong, more than 55-60 mph, then the windmills automatically shut off. Palm Springs windmills produce 600 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually. They provide enough energy to power almost the entire Coachella Valley.
Palm Springs Originally “Tilted at Windmills”
The expression “tilting at windmills” comes from the novel Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605. Don Quixote, his imagination fueled by constant reading, believes that he is a knight. He sets off into the Spanish countryside with a peasant, Sancho Panza, whom he believes to be his squire.
In perhaps the most famous scene from the novel, Don Quixote sees three windmills as fearful giants that he must combat, which is where the phrase “tilting at windmills” comes from.Ana Puchau de Lecea
“Tilting” is a term for a type of jousting with a lance. The expression “tilting at windmills” means attacking imaginary enemies or to engage in a futile activity. Palm Springs originally tried to fight the installation of the windmills. Local politicians called them eyesores.
(In the late 1980s) 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.”Sammy Roth, Desert Sun
Efforts to block the windmills were a futile activity. Eventually 4,000 windmills were installed, although now there are around 2,000. The windmills have become a source of clean alternative energy and pride for the Valley.
Sammy Roth, Desert Sun
“I am proud of the significant role Palm Springs has played in pioneering wind energy,” Pougnet (Palm Springs Mayor in 2014) 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.”
They are Actually Called Wind Turbines
Windmills are a category word used for any machine driven by the power of the wind. This can include milling grain and pumping water. Wind Turbines are the term used for windmills that generate electricity.
Modern wind turbines harness the power of the wind and turn it into electricity using an electromagnetic generator. Inside the turbine there is a generator. As the wind turns the blades, the blades carry a magnet around a coil of copper wires. The positive end of the magnet pulls the negatively charged electrons through the wire. This movement and flow of electrons is electricity. The electricity is carried through transmission lines, through transformers, and ultimately to residential and commercial end users.Will Fett, Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation
I was surprised to discover that several of my middle school students thought a person was inside the white box behind each windmill fan. That is where the generator is located.
Wind-Solar Hybrids Combine Two Types of Alternative Energy Production
Although solar energy costs are slightly higher than wind energy, both can be placed in the same area to create a hybrid. Solar energy is strongest in the middle of the day when the sun is brightest. Wind power is stronger at night in many areas. By combining the two, energy is produced around the clock. Additionally, this is a great way to maximize land use.
Wind Technology is Always Improving
One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me was the graveyard of old wind technology. Wind turbine installation began in the 1980s and there have been many improvements. It is a perfect example of how science is always seeking new discoveries and changing.
- The ability to monitor wind and the way it bounces off of mountain sides and other wind turbines helped create engineers determine more efficient wind turbine placement.
- The metal “Eiffel tower” posts suffered from the wind gusts and required more maintenance because the bolts needed tightening. The sleek white poles require less.
- Each wind turbine outputs 34,500 volts. Modern designs produce more energy than the older ones. Ultimately only 1,000 wind turbines will remain in the Pass and it will supply the same amount of energy.
- Modern wind turbines are quieter than the older versions. I went and stood near some older ones and they gave off a low frequency hum that reminded me of hearing a freeway in the distance. Standing under a modern one was quieter and it made a “whooshing” sound.
Future of Wind Technology is Bright
Aging transmission lines and energy infrastructure have created opportunities for the growth of alternative energy sources. They offer opportunities for young people in both the trades and STEM careers.
- The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is located in Colorado and works on both land and ocean wind turbines. It also researches solar and biofuels.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 56.9 percent employment growth for wind turbine technicians between 2018 and 2028.
Solar installer and wind technician are the first and second-fastest-growing professions in the country, respectively, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Palm Springs Windmills are much more than a photo opportunity. They are an exciting source of alternative energy and advancing technology. Be sure and book your own tour and learn even more about this fascinating topic. Oh, and get some great Instagram posts too!