Let’s Put Wind Energy on the California Map

By Paul Gipe


The following is an editorial (leader) which appeared in Windpower Monthly. By mid 1996 no wind energy visitor center had been built in California. There are, however, two travellers radio stations. One broadcasts at 540 AM in the Altamont Pass and another broadcasts at 1610 AM in the Tehachapi Pass.

Face it. California’s wind plants are visible, highly visible. We can paint them, but we can’t hide them. No matter what we do they attract attention–lot’s of attention. Gawkers pull off the highways to take pictures. Callers flood our switchboards for explanations. Film studios, and TV stations from around the world constantly seek access. It’s as if all we had to do some days is answer questions, and ferry visitors around.

In spite of ourselves wind plants have become a major attraction. California’s massed arrays of wind turbines now rival such landmarks as the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge for their powerful effect on the visual landscape.

It’s time to tap this interest and put it to work for us by building a world class visitors’ center in either Palm Springs or Tehachapi, preferably both. In the process we’ll literally put wind on the map–the tourist map. These centers will also enable us to tell wind energy’s success story while providing a much needed public service to those seeking to use wind energy elsewhere. The centers will give wind proponents a high profile place to go for information.

 Utilities have the right idea. They long ago recognized the importance of providing educational centers for visitors curious about the prominent technology power plants represent. Nearly all nuclear plants in the U.S. have lavish visitors’ centers to tout the wonders of nuclear power? Australian’s are even building a visitors’ center to crow about “clean coal.” Yet what’s more prominent than thousands of wind turbines gracing the landscape?

 Not that it hasn’t been done before. Nearly all wind plants I’ve visited in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany have some sort of visitors’ center. At some wind plants the elaborate centers or control rooms cost as much as the turbines. Others are simple affairs, just inexpensive kiosks. But they all have them.

 Ironically there’s a direct relationship between the number of turbines and the provision for visitors. We have 16,000 wind turbines in California and no visitors’ center. Europe has less than one-third the turbines but nearly a dozen places where visitors can go for information. The most elaborate (and the most undeserved) is that near Wilhelsmhaven where the local utility brags that they built three–yes THREE–wind turbines. They may be big, and the may be ugly, but there’s still only three of them. Then there’s the glassed control room at Sexbeirum in Friesland where the operator has an expansive view of all 18 machines. Or consider the scene at the Zeebrugge visitors’ center where tourists can either watch the harbor’s 23 turbines or peruse the dramatic artwork adorning the walls that depicts wind turbines struggling against the elements.

We Americans may be slow, but we can rise to the challenge. After all, California is the state that gave the world Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, and–how could we forget–Disneyland. While a theme park may not be exactly what we want, there are themes we must pursue. One, the historical link between the now quaint 18th century “Dutch” windmill, and the revered American water pumping windmill–the “windmill that won the West”–to modern wind turbines is essential for gaining the widespread public acceptance necessary for the industry’s expansion beyond California.

A visitor center could also serve as a focal point for the collection and exchange of technical information. The center could provide space for SERI staffers on assignment in California (unlike Colorado, SERI can make a difference in California), or space for visiting scholars. Today we’re turning researchers away. We don’t have the time to answer all the requests we now get or the facilities where we can go for data about the industry. What will happen when this business takes off again–as it must?

The industry needs these visitors’ centers, and the communities that we’re a part of need them too. Let’s celebrate our accomplishments and share with the world the strides we’ve made towards a renewable future. One incomparable vision of that future, and a prime candidate for the first such center can be found in Tehachapi any late afternoon. There in the soft evening light, you can gaze at a dancing wall of turbines, more than 1,200 strong. A visitors’ center opening onto such a sweeping panorama can help open our sights, and that of the public, to the view beyond California.