Although wind itself is intangible and lacks form, we tend to run when its form can be felt. Considering that thermodynamics wasn’t around as an idea until the mid-19th century, it’s understandable that humanity has taken a little while to truly exploit the wind’s power. Graduating from the windmills and sails of antiquity are gust-harvesting turbine farms of the future, such as the ones located just north of Palm Springs, California.
Built in the early 1980s, The San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm is awesome – emphasized with all the weight and import the word can be accorded. Seemingly endless rows of huge white needles stand as tri-bladed sentinels across 70 square miles of flat, red earth in one of the windiest places in the United States. The San Bernardino Mountains in the north and the San Jacinto range in the south effectively funnel the powerful flow of cool coastal air from the west to the hot Sonoran Desert further inland. With wind speeds of up to 80 mph, the valley’s wind power begs to be harnessed.
“With wind speeds of up to 80 mph, the valley’s wind power begs to be harnessed.”
Unlike many feats of engineering, the farm quenches humanity’s thirst for electricity without damaging the earth. Its 3,218 turbines generate 615 megawatts of renewable energy, which is enough to power nearby Palm Springs three times over. Enough to keep the world-class golf courses tended and the lights burning inside its stunning mid-century architecture – a welcome relic of the post-World War II boom period the city experienced.
The road to this sustainable idyll was long. Windmills became a viable agricultural tool during the 12th century – a time of no electric alternatives or carbon emissions to consider because such things did not exist. As the industrial revolution took hold in the late 17th century, the quietly oscillating blades of windmills were largely relegated to rural outposts. Wind energy couldn’t compete with burning furnaces of coal, but its technology did undergo a quiet, insistent development while the earth was mined for fossil fuels. The irony is that only now, after being ignored for so long, are we reaching for what we had all along.
The modern age of wind energy started with a pioneering Englishman named James Blyth. He designed the predecessors to modern wind turbines in the late 19th century, but ironically England didn’t install its first public utility wind turbine until 1951. It was Denmark that fully embraced the possibility of wind power; by 1900 the Nordic country was producing an estimated 30 megawatts of electricity via 2,500 windmills. However, they were mainly used for mechanical tasks, powering pumps and mills, rather than generating light in homes. One of the scattered, stutter-step advances in providing electricity through the wind was actually made in the United States. Installed in 1941, the world’s first megawatt-sized wind turbine stood on the intriguingly named Grandpa’s Knob hilltop in Vermont.
The Smith-Putnam wind turbine, as it was called, failed after only 1,100 hours of powering nearby Castleton and the technology languished until the closing decades of the 20th century. Its modern rehabilitation forms part of a story we’re all uncomfortably familiar with: how the world woke in fright, realizing the havoc we’d been wreaking on our planet.
The San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm formed a part of America’s attempts to form a solution – a government-spurred surge that led to California generating half of the world’s wind power by 1990. It still stands as a tireless leg of the Californian wind-power triumvirate completed by farms in Altamont Pass and Tehachapi – installations that collectively generated 12,320 gigawatt-hours of electricity in 2013. The slowly rotating blades of the turbines mark a time towards a more sustainable future, with picturesque Palm Springs among the beneficiaries. It’s a reminder that sometimes a stark, seemingly barren expanse of desert can be full of possibility.