PALM SPRINGS, Calif., May 6, 2007 -- Out here in the desert two hours east of Los Angeles, the weather is so blustery that NASA once declared the San Gorgonio Pass "one of the windiest spots in North America." No wonder it's also the birthplace of many of the world's first power-producing windmills.
Today, 3,000 of the so-called wind turbines have sprouted up from the desert floor and lined many of the mountain ridges along the freeway that ushers the rich and the famous into the legendary California oasis, Palm Springs. The sprawling wind farm generates enough electricity to light up a city the size of San Francisco.
But there's trouble on the horizon. A plan to erect even more windmills is meeting with vocal opposition here.
"They want to take this national monument and turn it into an industrial park," said homeowner Les Starks, who lives at the base of the state's second-tallest peak, the San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. "They want to go into neighborhoods where people live and say, 'Oh gee! We're making clean energy. What's your problem with that?' Well, that doesn't really wash!"
Starks is leading a campaign to try to defeat construction of 51 more windmills on a plot of private land within the protected Bureau of Land Management site. When challenged whether he was upset just because the windmills would be in his backyard, he quickly responded, "Yeah, this isn't a 'not in my backyard,' or 'nimby,' issue. This is a national monument. It belongs to everyone."
It's a problem communities are facing across the country -- a choice between renewable energy and natural surroundings. For instance, some Massachusetts residents, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., just suffered a setback in their battle to block a major offshore wind farm near Cape Cod.
Across the valley from Starks, another homeowner has also had it with wind farms. Retired schoolteacher Joyce Manley, her voice nearly drowned out by the blustery 50-mile-per-hour gusts, railed against another plan that would line a local highway with more windmills.
"They're going to start down there, come up along the road here, 363 feet from the edge of the road," she shouted.
Manley moved to the desert many years ago, before windmills were built right up to her property. She is particularly upset with the navigation lights required on the structures.
"See those lights? They don't stop," she said, gesturing to the windmills behind her as she stood on her front patio. "They're going all the time. Daytime, white. Nighttime, red. And then the sound. Anytime the windmills are turning, if the wind is blowing, you got a hum or a drone or a whooshing sound, depending on the speed of the wind."
The windmill opponents also charged that the wind energy industry has not delivered the promised power, nor spared the environment.
"We got thousands of migrating birds through this pass," said Jeff Morgan, who is chairman of the local Sierra Club chapter. "The windmills are a known source of avian mortality; they kill thousands of birds every year. The last count I had was 6,800 per year with the windmills we already have."
A recent visit to Palm Springs revealed that the windmills don't always produce electricity. In fact, when the wind is too strong, the turbines shut down automatically to avoid burning out. When there's no wind, there's also no electricity.
But advocates of this greenest of green energy say the industry is improving its technology and that future wind turbines will be more efficient and friendlier to wildlife.
"In the early days of the wind industry, there was a lot of different technologies that were being deployed and a lot more machines were being put up per unit of energy produced," said John White, director of California's Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. "The technologies we're seeing now and in the future require fewer machines to make more energy."
And what about wildlife?
"There have been issues with birds, but overall the footprint of the wind technology is modest compared to the fossil fuels that they replace," White said.
Ultimately, it will be up to Riverside County whether windmills are allowed on the ridgeline, 4,000 feet up the mountain above Stark's property.
"It's our county policy to have the machines; it's the United States policy to have renewable energy," said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley. "It's also the policy of the state of California, and it's good for our health."
But when pressed about the dramatic impact 400-foot-tall windmills would have on the landscape, Ashley said he'll probably vote against the proposal.
"I'm very wary of any project on the national monument," he said. "If you could do that, why not put hotels there? We don't need to put them [windmills] there."
The proposal is scheduled to be voted on later this year. But if history is any guide, the courts could rule against whatever the county decides, and additional windmills could be built.
"A court could overturn us," said Ashley. "It has happened in other instances. It has happened in the wind energy area."
In the past, courts have ruled in the interest of "the greatest amount of good for the greatest number people," said Ashley.
Wind energy proponents stress the benefits of the renewable resource and believe that compromise may be possible.
"We have the potential for 20 percent of our nation's energy to be produced from wind," said John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. "Sometimes though, you've got to change your plans when the community says, 'No.' Other times, you've got to provide some mitigation or protections. But overall, I think the wind industry can be accommodated."
Residents who live with the windmills said that's just "hot air."
"We're going to have to decide if we want to protect the American landscape or not -- or turn it into an industrial zone," said homeowner Starks.
The giant wind turbines here will continue to fan the debate as homeowners continue to tilt at the windmills.