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2Electricity in the Air

Special to The Times

Just west of Mojave, about 15 miles north of the Los Angeles County line, entrepreneurs are harvesting the High Desert’s most plentiful resource: wind.

Since the early 1980s, a handful of energy companies has erected nearly 5,000 windmills on this roughly 16-square-mile swath of Kern County desert. Perched on towers that rise 100 feet above the Joshua trees and desert scrub, the windmills generate electricity that is conveyed through an extensive network of power lines to a substation in Palmdale. From there, Southern California Edison distributes the energy to homes and businesses from Lancaster to Long Beach.

In 1996, Tehachapi windmills produced 1.4 billion kilowatts of electricity, enough to power about 250,000 homes for one year, said Linda White, the executive director of the Kern Wind Energy Assn.

“The Tehachapi Pass is one of the single largest areas in the world for producing electricity through wind power,” White said. “One thing about wind is that we’ll never have to worry about an embargo. It’s always going to be there and it’s always going to be free.”

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Large-scale commercial wind farms have also been established in Palm Springs and the Altamont Pass, east of San Francisco.

Out in the wind fields, hundreds of turbines the size of minivans spin at about 48 mph, each propelled by three 42-foot-long white blades. The motion of the turbines blends with the wind to create a humming noise that sounds like a jet airplane engine.

“That’s a good sound. That’s the sound of making electricity,” said Jim Watkins, general manager of Sea West, which owns one of the larger wind farms in Tehachapi Pass. “These machines are doing two things at one time. They’re making electricity and they’re making money.”

A minimum wind speed of 11 mph is required to power the Mitsubishi turbines that make up most of Sea West’s 800-plus windmills. To reach their maximum output of 250 kilowatts per hour, the windmills require steady winds of at least 28 mph. Wind speeds beyond 62 mph can damage the machines and cause them to automatically shut down.

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Although people around the world have tapped the energy potential of wind for centuries, it is only in the last two decades that technology has improved enough to support large commercial endeavors, White said.

The newest turbines on the market can generate up to 750 kilowatts of electricity per hour, greatly increasing potential profits.

“There’s a lot of interest in wind power right now,” White said. “We don’t burn fuel so we don’t pollute the air. With the new technology it’s becoming more and more economically viable.”

For those interested in learning more about wind power, the energy association will host a “Wind Fair” July 18-19 at Tehachapi City Park.

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