In the desert, where things don’t normally grow very tall, a new crop of electricity-producing wind turbines is sprouting, standing nearly as high as 30-story buildings.
The new windmills are slowly replacing ones less than half as tall that over the last 15 years have rooted like so many row crops along Interstate 10, just east of the San Gorgonio Pass.
The transition to the new wind turbines, which measure 296 feet tall from the ground to the tip of a rotor blade, is prompted by the 1996 deregulation of the state’s electricity industry, which has forced wind farms to become more efficient. The $500,000 machines, with their 75-foot-long, 12,000-pound blades, spin more slowly but turn larger generators, creating about 15 times more electricity than their earliest predecessors.
Because their size requires more elbow room, fewer of the taller windmills are being erected to replace the smaller ones. At their peak in the late 1980s, nearly 4,000 wind turbines, 80 to 125 feet tall, dotted the area; eventually, the number will be reduced to the hundreds, operators predict.
Additionally, the newest ones are supported by see-through latticework towers, similar to the towers that support high-voltage power lines, which may make them less of an eyesore than earlier models that were supported by steel posts.
Their electricity is wired directly into the Southern California power grid. Statewide, about 1.1% of all electricity is generated by wind turbines.
But introduction of the new wind turbines is renewing criticism of the wind farms that carpet the landscape at the desert mouth of the San Gorgonio Pass, the eighth-windiest place on the planet.
The machines are destroying views, killing birds, disrupting wildlife habitat and are a source of aggravation because of their incessant noise, critics say. They worry that the taller turbines will be even more unsightly and noisy.
Sierra Club representatives and some residents say they are particularly concerned that more wind farms with the taller machines will be permitted at the expense of the environment because of government support of wind energy.
Among the critics is Sandy Carmichael, who bought a winter home 14 years ago near the junction of Interstate 10 and California 111, and who has since seen the number of windmills quadruple.
“You hear them at night going swish . . . swish . . . swish,” said Carmichael, whose home is about two miles from the nearest wind farm.
She worries that the new machines will produce low-frequency noise and will kill hawks, eagles and other raptors that unwittingly fly into the path of the rotating blades.
But Dick Anderson, a wildlife biologist for the California Energy Commission, said a recent study concluded that far fewer birds are killed by wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass than are lost to the wind farms at Altamont Pass, east of San Francisco. The study did not quantify the numbers.
He said most migratory birds fly far above the towers. It remains unclear, he said, whether the new, taller wind turbines will prove more of a threat to birds.
Carmichael said she is mostly afraid that the windmills will take a huge slice out of property values, especially if new wind farms win the zoning changes to creep closer to her home. “Who wants to live in windmill country?” she asks.
Peter Mackenzie, who lives in nearby Whitewater, says noise levels “are already terrible.” At times, he maintains, “they’re as loud as a jet parked outside your house.”
Others, including neighbors and industry officials, disagree. Some people describe the sound as a quiet whine or say it is similar to the sound of a seashell placed to one’s ear, if it can be heard at all.
Perhaps no one lives closer to the windmills than Ellis and Linda Schneider, whose family leases land as a wind farm. Their home is about 250 feet from the nearest row of older, smaller windmills.
“When we have friends spend the night, they say they can’t sleep because of the hum, and they turn on the radio,” said Linda Schneider. “But we live here full time and I guess we’ve gotten use to them.”
Usually, her husband said, the insidious sound of the twirling rotors is drowned out by the noise of freeway traffic, which is less than a mile away.
Industry officials say the new, taller wind turbines will prove less offensive than the existing ones, on just about every count.
Fred Noble, president of Wintec Energy Ltd., which operates four of the 20 wind farms in the area, said that because of improved technology, the taller, more powerful machines are quiet enough to meet Riverside County noise requirements that have grown more stringent.
He argues that although the windmills can be heard when they begin rotating in winds of 14 mph, when the wind reaches 20 mph, it is louder than the windmills.
The taller ones will reduce visual blight, he said, because there will be fewer of them. He said 200 older turbines at one site were replaced with 17 of the new ones. “We’re opening up the landscape,” he said.
Some neighbors and passing tourists say that they enjoy the presence of the wind farms.
“If it weren’t for them, the area would be just a waste,” said James Mohoff, 75, who lives in nearby Desert Hot Springs. “I’m glad they’ve got something to utilize the space. That’s modern technology.”
John Matsuda, a Tucson motorist stopping for gas along the freeway, said he finds them “quite beguiling. Compared to the power lines and the billboards that line the freeways, the windmills are a thing of unusual beauty.”