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Disappearing Windmills

by Tom Spiglanin, Director of Education
Palm Springs Windmill Tours

At Palm Springs Windmill Tours, I get to explain wind energy to thousands of people who visit each month. I enjoy people’s enthusiasm for learning about the latest wind technology, which is one of the lowest-cost ways to add new energy sources to the grid. I also delight in providing historical facts and data about wind turbines and telling the history of the Palm Springs Wind Farms.

Even though there was some backlash in the early 1980s from thousands of wind turbines installed in just four years, they are now iconic points of interest that welcome visitors to the Coachella Valley.

Many do not realize that the early Palm Springs Wind Farms in the San Gorgonio Pass contributed to an emerging industry that has now become a vital source of clean, renewable energy to the electric grid. Locally, these wind farms power approximately a quarter of a million homes and provide millions of dollars in tax revenue to the City of Palm Springs.

Many people wonder why a handful of wind turbines appear to be non-operational. The main reason is that the design life of these majestic machines ranges from 20 to 25 years. As the years pass, more disappear to make room for new, more efficient wind turbines. Their number continues to decline.

In the last few years alone, the total number of wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass has reduced from more than 2,000 to under 1,200 as hundreds of old turbines yielded to a handful of new, more powerful ones. The older turbines are less efficient and need more maintenance, even if they are not derelict.

I believe the number of wind turbines is now below 1,000 since government databases do not yet account for many recent changes, including the ones I see taking place outside our window. For example, after many years of service, dozens of machines made by manufacturers Micon and Zond are being retired and scrapped.

The Micon 65 kW wind turbines

a windmill on a metal pole

Not far from our Tour Center stands a small group of derelict-looking wind turbines on 80-foot towers made of galvanized steel. Government databases show that they were installed in 1986, each producing up to 65 kW of electricity. The databases don’t show that this wind farm was once a top electricity producer, comprised of reliable Danish wind turbines made by Micon.

Databases also don’t capture the owner’s efforts to maintain and operate the machines. Over the decades, they eventually fell into disrepair until being rebuilt with newer components and electronics with an enhanced output capacity. After years of standing silently, they suddenly spun to life earlier this year, operating for a few weeks. Then, just as suddenly, they went dormant again. We now know that these wind machines will be removed and scrapped in the coming weeks. Although valuable as a teaching tool, we celebrate their disappearance as their owner chooses to be a good steward of the surrounding desert environment.

The Zond Z-50 wind turbines

A few other derelict turbines are visible from the Tour Center, standing on lattice steel towers that are also called truss towers. Built by American manufacturer Zond, they were reliable wind machines that operated well for decades. The four nearest the tour center were fully operational as recently as November last year.

These turbines do not look derelict to the average viewer, who sees the 200-foot truss towers as a pleasant visual departure from the tubular steel towers surrounding them. They are, however, derelict due to maintenance issues and vandalism. Their owners are busily dismantling and scrapping the entire wind farm that was developed in 1999.

a crane scrapping a Zond wind turbine in north Palm Springs

The last Zond Z-50 wind turbine standing in Palm Springs just days before it was dismantled on July 15th, 2022. A group of Z-50s may still be seen south of I-10 near Cabazon.

Crews work with heavy machinery to scrap and salvage the Zond wind turbines.

Preserving history

Modern wind turbines are elegant and reliable pieces of human engineering. Many of us find them beautiful as well. As new wind farms appear around the world, they feature only the newer machines from a small number of global manufacturers. The subtle differences between the designs are insignificant to most of us who see only tall round towers with a white nacelle at the top and three spinning blades.

As the historical wind turbines disappear, replaced by larger modern ones, the viewsheds improve. At the same time, both repowering efforts and responsible land stewardship mean that the old wind turbines and their history are in danger of being lost.

Preserving the history of our wind machines is one of the missions of Palm Springs Windmill Tours. Guests are sometimes surprised to learn that our tour features several wind turbines salvaged from the 1980s. Many, however, express an interest in seeing the big blades up close and the ones from the 1980s only measure 26 to 40 feet or so. The Zond blades from 1999 are each about 80 feet long and weigh in at 8,000 pounds. Still small compared to many of the operational blades nearby, we are very fortunate to have added two of them for display. We hope to see you soon!

Crane lifting one Zond Z-50 wind turbine blade for loading onto a truck.

The Zond Z-50 blades being relocated to Palm Springs Windmill Tours with modern wind turbines and Mt. San Jacinto towering in the background.

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