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San Gorgonio windmills can teach you a lot

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In the Coachella Valley, you can roll along the San Andreas fault on a chuck wagon, lope through a date farm on a camel, soar above 100 golf courses in a motorless sailplane, float over the desert at sunrise in a hot-air balloon and take a Palm Springs celebrity tour to check out the homes of Red Skelton, Hedy Lamarr and Barry Manilow.

Or you can board a small white bus on the far side of Interstate 10 and admire windmills up close for 90 minutes.

Maybe you've already seen them on the way to your favorite resort in La Quinta -- those rows of tri-blade ivory towers spinning away like alien corn in the blustery San Gorgonio Pass near the exit to Palm Springs.


THE BEST WAY TO COACHELLA

The San Gorgonio Wind Park begins about 100 miles east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley. To reach the windmill tour departure site, take Interstate 10 east to the Indian Road exit (five miles past the California Highway 111 exit to Palm Springs) in North Palm Springs. Drive a block north to 19th Avenue and turn left into the parking lot at 19-125 N. Indian Ave.

TOUR DETAILS run Wednesday through Saturday at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (mornings only during the summer). Tours are 90 minutes long, cost $25, $23 for 65 and over and $10 for 12 and under. Reserve ahead to confirm times; (760) 320-1365, www.thebestofthebesttours.com


There are about 4,500 of them out here, representing 80 wind farms run by companies you may know (Florida Power & Light), others you may not (Iberdrola) and, formerly, by others you wish you hadn't (Enron). Collectively, they can harness 650 megawatts of pure, clean, renewable energy.

"Enough to handle 195,000 typical California homes," says tour guide Ken Huskey of Palm Springs Windmill Tours, a Palm Springs-based tour operation that touts itself as the longest continually operating wind farm tour in the country (about 20 years).

It's a claim that the capacity crowd of 20 passengers won't be verifying this day. But never mind that. If you want evidence that these energy-stashing monsters are more than just eerie desert décor on the road to Palm Springs, here's your tour.

"We have in the field out here four different generations of technology and 31 different types of wind turbines in operation," says Huskey, an affable, fast-talking 40-year veteran in the energy industry.

"You're gonna see a little bit of this and a little bit of that today as we're out here cruising around the San Gorgonio wind park," he says, revving up the engine and pulling onto a desolate side road running between fields full of hulking, 300-hundred-foot windmills.

At close range, they're that much more striking than from the highway -- like a "War of the Worlds" invasion in high-rise-free Palm Springs, where nothing else is over five stories.

"These fellas right here are babies," says Huskey, pointing to some older units once owned by the now-defunct energy giant Enron.

"Outside city limits they're even bigger, and over in Europe, where this stuff was first developed, there are turbines that are pushing 700 feet. So now we're playing catch up."

And we have a lot of it to do, adds Huskey, if we're going to reach the Department of Energy's objective to get 20% of our electricity from wind by 2030. But more on that later.

"Now, let's say you want to open your own wind farm -- what's the first thing you need?" Huskey asks.

"Money!" volleys half the bus in chorus.

"Good answer. What else?" presses Huskey.

"Wind!"

"Right. You're going to need at least a sustained 13 mph wind velocity to justify a wind park investment. Now, in this pass we get 2,600 hours of wind per year at an average velocity of 16 to 18 mph, which works out to about seven hours per day."

Already there are some slightly dazed faces in the audience. The kind you'd more expect in a college applied physics class than instead of on a bus tour in greater Palm Springs.

"Y'see, off to our left we've got 10,834-foot Mt. San Jacinto. That's the steepest mountain face in North America," Huskey explains. "And over to our right, we've got 11,502-foot Mt. San Gorgonio."

"Now wind energy is a form of solar energy. The sun beats down on the Earth and surfaces heat up at different temperatures. Out here in the pass, when the hot desert air rises and pulls in the cool air off the ocean, what happens is something called the venturi effect . . . . "

The lesson continues as we ride through neck-craning windmill country. Past an old "windmill graveyard" full of enormous scrap. Steel towers roll by -- 40 stories high and more than 132 metric tons with blades that could sweep across half a football field. Even if all the stats sail right over your head, the visuals are downright impressive.

"These lattice-towered ones over there on your right are first-generation wind turbines," Huskey points out. "They're called 'downwind' or 'dumb' because they just sit there and don't have a 'brain' that can adjust to the wind."

The solid steel goliaths on our left are the newer ones. They're "upwind" or "smart" because each of them is equipped with an anemometer that detects wind velocity and direction and, in turn, commands the turbine to yaw into the wind and harvest as much energy as possible.

"Why are they called wind turbines and not windmills?" asks some dumb guy sitting in the front. OK -- it's me.

"Calling these fellas 'windmills' is kind of like equating a Wright brothers airplane with a Boeing 747," says Huskey, smiling. "But you can call them windmills if you want. I won't stop you."

He points to a row of formidable turbines gleaming in the sun to bring the point home.

"These Vestas V82 models right here are $3.5-million machines. The foundation alone is a $100,000 investment -- 325 cubic yards of cement splashed on top of 17,000 pounds of steel. The largest cement truck we make out here is 10 cubic yards. That means you have to have 32 cement trucks pouring cement for just one of these things."

Enough said. Turbines it is.

And what are we going to need to fulfill the U.S. Department of Energy's bold initiative to produce 20% of our electricity from wind by 2030?

We'll need "233,330 more wind turbines, 610,000 blades, 99 million bolts, 1 million miles of rebar and 1,829,997 delivery trucks," Huskey says. "All of which will create 500,000 more jobs, save consumers $128 billion through lower natural gas costs and cut greenhouse emissions as much as taking 140 million automobiles off the road."

The bus parks on a desolate road called Windhaven Drive populated by nothing but churning steel towers and the whistling of 16 mph wind.

The crowd disembarks and stands gaping at a sun-battered hillside of wind turbines for a few minutes, quietly lost in their own private, energy-conscious thoughts -- too deep to utter or even compute.

A roadrunner scurries past, the only sign of life out here.

"That's a roadrunner -- Latin name, Geococcyx californianus," Huskey says. "It's New Mexico's state bird. Favorite food is rattlesnake."

But never mind all that. On a blustery day, it's just a trip to be out here on the farm admiring these birds.

travel@latimes.com

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