San Gorgonio Pass and the “Abandoned Wind Turbines” Near Palm Springs, California—an Update

By Paul Gipe

The old canard of 14,000 abandoned wind turbines in California came up again recently in Australia of all places. A rabid anti-wind blogger—seems the Aussies have a good crop of them downunder—posted a typically ill-informed tirade against wind energy.

Unfortunately for him, he posted a photo along with his blog that proclaimed “an abandoned wind farm”. I say unfortunately because the photo looks like it was taken from the same place on the Whitewater Wash near Palm Springs that I’ve taken quite a few photos myself. The vegetation, Greasewood (Larea tridentata), is the same as is the landscape and mountain backdrop. His photo had an abandoned bus in the foreground. I haven’t seen an abandoned bus, but I’ve seen a lot of other abandoned stuff there in the past: burned out cars, sofas, mattresses, and other assorted detritus.

The photos on the right were taken at two different times. The first five photos are from 2011 and taken from the top of the Aerial Tramway on Mount San Jacinto looking down on the San Gorgonio Pass. (Click on the images to enlarge.) The next five photos are from my recent visit and were taken from various vantage points that are publicly accessible: the train station, Dillon Road, Painted Hills Road, and others.

We were visiting relatives in Palm Springs this past weekend so I decided to take a tour and get some current photos on the wind farms of the San Gorgonio Pass and generally catch up on what’s been happening there in the past few years.

No, I didn’t find any school bus. To my pleasant surprise I didn’t find a lot of the urban-industrial trash that was so common there in the past. It’s still not an oasis by any means. There’s still plenty of suburban schlock to offend almost anyone’s aesthetic sense.

The San Gorgonio Pass

The San Gorgonio Pass is the eastern gateway through the mountains that ring the Los Angeles Basin. It is a transportation corridor for roads, rail, and electricity from Hoover Dam and the Palos Verde plants in Nevada and Arizona. It is also one of the windiest places in the US. The pass acts like a giant funnel concentrating the coastal flow into the hot interior of the Sonoran Desert (the Coachella Valley).

The pass is bounded on the north by the San Bernadino mountains and on the south by Mount San Jacinto. Interstate 10 crosses from east to west as does a major rail line.

The Whitewater River enters from the north through Whitewater Canyon. State Route 62 also enters from the north. Palm Springs lies to the southeast in the wind shadow of Mount San Jacinto.

The wind resource area encompasses Alta Mesa to the northwest, Whitewater Hill and Painted Hill to the north, The Whitewater Wash on the south, and the flats along Dillon Road on the north side of Interstate 10.

To date, all the development has been west of Indian Ave—the road featured in the Dustin Hoffman film “Rainman”.

The 14,000 Abandoned Wind Turbines

What is this old canard? Some anti-wind “think tanks” funded by the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries have been promoting the idea that there are 14,000 abandoned wind turbines in California. There isn’t, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to spread this myth.

I’d written numerous reports in the 1980s tallying how many wind turbines there were in the state and how much electricity they generated. So, I am familiar with the numbers and have my own records that date to 1980.

I’ve written that there were 14,000 wind turbines at one time in California distributed among three Wind Resource Areas: the Altamont Pass, the Tehachapi Pass, and the San Gorgonio Pass. How this got twisted to “14,000 abandoned wind turbines” in California is something a psychologist or a specialist in the propagation of propaganda will have to analyze.

Here’s an brief analysis of one Wind Resource Area—the San Gorgonio Pass.

Wind Plants of the San Gorgonio Pass

Because of the Pass’ proximity to a politically powerful population center–Palm Springs–wind development began there a few years after development took off in the Altamont and Tehachapi passes. Nevertheless, wind development boomed in the period from 1983 through 1985.

Thousands of wind turbines were installed in a matter of a few years. By 1986 4,200 wind turbines had been installed. It was an amazing accomplishment. It represented the best—and the worst—of human undertakings. 

While thousands of wind turbines were robust workhorses—nearly all Danish–hundreds if not thousands of lousy, unreliable wind turbines had been erected on a fragile desert landscape. Almost immediately some of the wind turbines failed, and the companies owning them failed along with their turbines.

Following a long American tradition of resource extraction boom and bust, some of the developers simply walked away leaving the public and later developers to clean up the mess they left behind. These derelict or “abandoned” wind turbines were an eyesore near the tourist mecca of Palm Springs for years.

However, even at its worse the bulk of wind turbines in the pass were operating and continued to produce hundreds of millions of kilowatt-hours per year.

Appalling Paucity of Data

For the importance of wind development in California to the history of renewable energy worldwide, there’s an appalling paucity of up-to-date statistics. The modern commercial development of wind energy began in California’s mountain passes. Yet neither the state of California nor the wind industry keep current data on the performance of the state’s wind turbines.

Supporters and opponents of wind energy can examine the performance of every single wind turbine installed in Denmark since the 1970s. If you want to know how well the cooperatively-owned wind turbines at Middelgrunden offshore of Copenhagen are performing, you can.

Thus, it’s easy for “think tanks” to make wild accusations about “14,000 abandoned wind turbines in California” because it’s nearly impossible for a lay person to find the facts.

In the accompanying charts most of the data stops at 2005. With the aid of renewable consultant Robert Freehling I’ve pieced together the amount of generating capacity in the San Gorgonio Pass through 2012—more or less.

Units Decline Capacity & Generation Steadily Increase

As seen in the charts, the number of turbines installed in the San Gorgonio Pass has steadily declined as the derelict wind turbines were gradually removed. According to data in the Wind Project Performance Reporting System there was the net removal of 2,900 wind turbines since the late 1980s.

Meanwhile, installed capacity has steadily increased as newer larger wind turbines have been installed.

And most importantly, total generation has steadily increased for the past two decades. In 2005, total generation reached 1.1 TWh and is probably even higher today. It’s certainly hard to claim that a wind farm is “abandoned” when it produces 1 TWh per year.

My Recent Visit

Here’s what I saw on my recent visit. While there are still some non-operating turbines, nearly all of the junk that at one time littered the Whitewater Wash has been removed and replaced with modern turbines.

All the unsightly US Windpower-Kenetech turbines have been removed. Though these turbines were never “abandoned” or “derelict” they were always an eyesore from the moment they were installed. I’ve written about them—unflatteringly—in my books and articles. There may have been as many as 120 of these machines at one time.

There was a small group—a dozen at most—old StormMaster turbines that were inoperative. This group may be someone’s hobby wind farm. They may have been inoperative in 2011 when I was last in Palm Springs. If so, they’ve been out-of-service for three years and should have been removed.

There were also a few rows or old Nordtanks or Micons that were inoperative in a field with new wind turbines and they should be removed too. There were probably three-dozen or more. There was a crew chipping out a foundation on one turbine. It could have fallen over or they could be taking it out for other reasons.

There was an entire row of Vanguard (Irish version of the Windmatics 15s) 65 kW machines that were off for some reason. (These are wind turbines that were made in Ireland but were copies of a Danish turbine.) When an entire group of turbines are all off at one time it indicates either an electrical problem affecting all the turbines, or some all-encompassing legal problem that forces the entire project to shut down. I have no way to know. There are 40 turbines in this row.

There were a few Micon 750s down that I’ve featured in my photographs in the past. They may be having some service issues.

There was the odd Mitusbushi 1-MW or two down. (There are lots of Mitsubishi turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass.)

All the Enertech, Carter, Jacobs, and ESI machines have been removed for some time.

While the wind farms of the San Gorgonio Pass will never win “the most beautiful wind farm of the world” contest, the area is the best I’ve seen it in nearly three decades. There’s still work to do, and there are still a lot of bad practices but overall the San Gorgonio Pass has turned a corner.

So, how many abandoned wind turbines? I’d rephrase it and ask how many “derelict” wind turbines. Derelict is a more all encompassing term. A derelict turbine may not necessarily be abandoned.

In my brief tour, I’d say there’s maybe several dozen derelict turbines, maybe less than 100. Could be more, but it would be in the low hundreds, certainly not more than that.

Dunebuggy Tours

Speaking of tours, as we checked into our motel, I noticed a brochure promoting Windmill & Dunebuggy Tours. I’d written long ago about various companies offering tours of the wind turbines in Palm Springs. The companies come and go, but there always seems to be someone offering tours. So I gave the company a call just to confirm they were still in business. Indeed they were. About half of their clients want tours to the wind farms. Keep in mind that these clients have to be adventurous to want a tour to see wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass in an open dunebuggy.

Despite what some would consider a harsh and unforgiving landscape (bright sun, high temperatures, blowing sand) and a sea of wind turbines, there are tourists who want to go out and touch a real live windmill.

Sea of Wind Turbines—the Photo

The photo that started this essay was likely taken near the Palm Springs Amtrak station looking southwest toward Mount San Jacinto. In the screen image from Google below, you can see the train station at the lower right, the Greasewood shrubs and the first two rows of wind turbines. There are many more rows after that—for probably two kilometers or more.

So, no, the wind farms of the San Gorgonio Pass are not abandoned. Not in the least.