Palmdale parking lots double as wind farms

In an effort to tap one of the high desert’s most abundant resources, Palmdale is allowing large shopping centers and business parks to install small wind turbines in their parking lots to save on electricity costs.

Civic leaders in the Antelope Valley have taken a variety of steps in recent years to harness and adapt to the region’s vast supplies of sun and wind. In Lancaster, hundreds of acres of desert landscape will be used for a huge bed of solar-thermal panels. Both Palmdale and Lancaster have taken steps to ban new lawns to help conserve water.

The plan for urban wind turbines puts Palmdale in company with blustery cities such as Buffalo, N.Y., and Cleveland that have allowed small wind farms in commercial and business districts.


Palmdale’s plan clears the way for turbines no more than 60 feet high to be erected atop light standards in some parking lots.

City officials are also studying turbines that could be compatible in neighborhoods.

A Massachusetts-based firm is preparing to install what will probably be Palmdale’s first wind farm -- a 17-turbine plot being developed in conjunction with Sam’s Club, a members-only retail warehouse owned by Wal-Mart.

“It’s nice to have the advantage that we have, a supply of renewable energy,” said Benjamin Lucha, a city administrative analyst. “We have an abundance of sunlight. We have a potential for wind energy . . . and it’s consistent.”

Palmdale’s interest in wind as a power source is part of an emerging trend in the American landscape.

Last year, 10,000 small turbines were sold to homes, farms and businesses nationwide, said Ron Stimmel, who specializes in small wind systems at the American Wind Energy Assn. in Washington, D.C. The figure represents a 78% increase over the previous year, attributed in part to cheaper prices and federal tax credits. The systems are concentrated in states with the best rebate policies -- and a good supply of wind -- including California, Wisconsin, New York, Ohio and Vermont.

“Small wind systems have a similar potential for growth as the solar industry,” Stimmel said. “This is very well on its way to becoming mainstream.”

Yet Palmdale officials are mindful of aesthetic concerns about wind turbines sprouting up in the city. That’s why they would have to be mounted on existing light poles and be compatible in design and color with the existing light fixtures at a given site, said Assistant City Manager Laurie Lile.

For the time being, turbines are not permitted near residential properties, to avoid any disturbance from noise or vibration.

The commercial turbines “are intended not to be stand-alone like a turbine farm,” Lile recently told the City Council. “They would be an accessory.”

In the past, the community has been apprehensive about large wind turbines. Several years ago, the city fought plans by the Palmdale Water District to build a turbine rising 315 feet above Lake Palmdale to power its treatment plant and booster-pump facility.

Residents complained that the turbine would be a monstrous eyesore and the city filed a lawsuit citing environmental concerns. But the project ultimately moved forward, and today the water district operates the only commercial-scale turbine in the southern Antelope Valley.

The smaller turbines are getting a much warmer reception.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Marsha Furman, 61, a Palmdale resident of 25 years and member of the Sam’s Club where turbines are planned. “The wind is something we live with out here. To have the opportunity to use this technology, oh my gosh. . . . It’s outstanding. I’m thrilled.”

Furman said she wasn’t worried about the aesthetics of the turbines because they were not expected to be “imposing, big and bulky.”

Patricia Shaw, 50, the retired owner of a real estate management company, said permitting small wind turbines would help attract new companies to Palmdale.

“Any time you can reduce the cost of small businesses to operate, that just encourages more businesses to come,” she said. “The cheaper you make it for a business to operate, the more people they can hire, and the better they can do.”

Kory Lundberg, media manager for Wal-Mart, said the Sam’s Club turbine project was embraced as part of the company’s sustainability initiatives, which include zero waste and the goal to ultimately be supplied entirely by renewable energy.

Wal-mart already has one wind turbine at a store in Arkansas, Lundberg said.

The Sam’s Club turbines are expected to generate 76,000 kilowatts of energy, enough “to power six single-family homes for a year,” according to Lundberg.

Under a power purchase agreement, the wind development firm Deerpath Energy would own the turbines and Wal-Mart would buy the power they produce, Lundberg said.

Kellogg Warner, founder and chief executive of Deerpath Energy, said Sam’s Club can expect to save 5% on energy bills, “depending on how the wind is blowing.”

The Sam’s Club project would be the Marblehead, Mass.-based firm’s first full-scale deployment of wind turbines, according to Warner. The company has other projects in the works in Massachusetts and Texas, but considered Palmdale an ideal location to launch the venture.

“We’re providing them with the ability to generate renewable power directly on site, at a cost that is competitive with the local utility cost,” Warner said.

According to information published by the California Energy Commission, “wind power is currently more expensive than that produced by natural gas-fired plants,” but it is reliable because “the price of wind power is not affected by fuel price increases or supply disruptions.” Additionally, wind power emits no pollution and turbines can be quickly installed.

“We have to all embrace new ideas,” said Lile. “The downside to turbines is basically aesthetic, but we can no longer choose to be so picky aesthetically at the expense of sustainable energy.”