The windmills dotting the desert landscape along Interstate 10 are some of the most iconic symbols of Palm Springs. Seeing them emerge from the eastern horizon is a sign for locals that they’re almost home. They’re in company logos and even tattooed on admirers.
What started as just a new way to generate energy has turned into the Coachella Valley’s version of the Space Needle or Golden Gate Bridge.
But the windmills weren’t always welcome in the area. The idea faced some pushback from city leaders in the 1980s, with one telling The Los Angeles Times, “We don’t think tourism and industry go together … and all these windmills look like industry.”
Former President Donald Trump even claimed, “If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations: Your house just went down 75% in value,” and added, “If it doesn’t blow, you can forget about television for that night.”
The critics, including Trump, couldn’t have been more wrong. Forty years after they first began to appear on the local landscape, the windmills generate not only energy, but curiosity. There’s so much interest that Fred Noble, CEO of Wintec Energy, was inspired to start a tour company in 2014 that remains the first and only one of its kind in the nation.
Annette Said, marketing director at Palm Springs Windmill Tours, estimates they see 1,000 visitors a month. Interest in the tours has remained strong, she offered, even during the pandemic, when they moved from buses to golf carts. A self-guided version of the tour is available via an app so visitors can use their own vehicles.
The content and the style of the tour were overhauled too. During a visit to the facility last week, Tour Operations Manager Dr. Tom Spiglanin, who worked in technical education in the aerospace industry for more than 30 years, said he can teach the basics of wind energy in an approachable way to elementary students. For visiting scientists, he also answers complex engineering and electrical questions in minute technical detail.
Spiglanin spends a lot of his time dispelling myths about the windmills. No, they don’t kill a lot of birds, he explained. They’re also not noisy, and all of the energy generated is not shipped off somewhere else in the state.
The tour begins with education. Guests learn how power is generated before heading out either in their own vehicle or a golf cart on a journey through the history of wind power in the San Gorgonio Pass. Visitors learn about failures and successes of the different types of windmills and the future of the industry.
That future is being shaped here in Palm Springs.
“These are all experiments from inventors trying to find a more efficient way to harvest wind energy,” Spiglanin said, pointing to several oddly shaped vertical windmills.
The future might also include fewer windmills. Newer models are bigger and more efficient, so much so that the company recently replaced more than 1,000 older windmills with only 68 modern turbines.
While most visitors are from out of town, there’s also heavy interest among locals who come for a tour after decades of driving past the windmills.
Celine and Philippe Nicolas, visiting the area from Versailles, France, toured recently. They have visited the Palm Springs area for years and were surprised to learn they could drive among the towering turbines. They found out about the tours online and wanted to try something different, instead of lounging by the pool or playing golf.
“All this time, we never thought there was a tour!” exclaimed Celine.
Another couple, Martha Wright and David Litaker from Virginia, stood beside one of the earlier windmill models, listening to the audio from the narrated app. Wright and Litaker stopped on a whim to take the tour and enjoyed learning about wind energy.
“We’re out here visiting friends,” said Wright. “We have an interest in renewable energy, and driving past the wind farm, we couldn’t miss it.”
“We’re amazed at how much wind energy California produces,” she added. “You don’t see anything like this where we are. And the few windmills that appear tend to be met with a lot of resistance.”