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Economy

Are Wind Farm Tours the Hoover Dam Trip of the 21st Century?

Marvel at America’s green transition on your next vacation.

A vintage windmill postcard.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Scroll past San Jacinto Mountain, Brandini Toffee, a bicycle-powered bar crawl, and 13 other attractions on Tripadvisor’s list of “Things to Do in Palm Springs” and you’ll come to “Palm Springs Windmill Tours.” Its user-generated blurb tells would-be visitors to expect “a tour in the middle of wind turbine generators,” lest the name suggests something slightly more romantic and Dutch. In the accompanying photo, a black convertible noses toward the white gyrating towers that have become synonymous with the north entrance to the Coachella Valley.

If you leave your uncannily verdant gated community and drive up Highway 10 — away from the Mod Squad architectural tour and the horseback rides at Smoke Tree Stables, past signs advertising breast augmentations and the Air Force Reserve to homebound Angelenos — you’ll eventually reach a frontage road where a WINDMILL TOURS PARKING sign directs visitors toward an unassuming green trailer for check-in. All around the parking lot, and on both sides of the highway, you can already see the main attractions: wind turbines, many of them taller than the Statue of Liberty, though perspective is difficult here since there are hardly any normal-sized reference points, like palm trees, around for orientation.

One thing is immediately clear: This is “not Disneyland,” as Tom Spiglanin, Palm Springs Windmill Tours’ enthusiastic education director, will be the first to admit. “We’re not fun and games,” Spiglanin adds on a video call, about a week after I take a tour for myself. “Here, we are education.”

Once wind tour visitors have their curiosity piqued, “then we force the history down their throat, and it all turns out to be this great experience at the end,” says Tom Spiglanin.Heatmap/Jeva Lange

Visiting a wind farm on vacation admittedly might not be at the top of most people’s to-do lists. They still have a reputation as eye-sores: “Palm Springs, California, has been destroyed — absolutely destroyed — by the world’s ugliest wind farm at the Gateway on Interstate 10,” one future president tweeted in 2012. Even today, wind naysayers will leave fake one-star reviews that Spiglanin and his team have to dutifully remove.

But while it might not be much to look at from the parking lot, Palm Springs Windmill Tours sits at the intersection of two rich niches of the modern travel industry: eco-tourism and industrial tourism. The former is considered to be the fastest-growing segment within the global tourism industry; the latter is why I spent many a family car trip being shuttled to places like Grand Coulee Dam and Hoover Dam to marvel at the wonders of human engineering and hydroelectric power.

Though commercial wind farms are younger than Depression-era public works projects (Palm Spring’s just turned 40) and less scenic than a carbon-neutral eco-lodge in Costa Rica, they might have a place in the travel plans of the future: For one thing, as Spiglanin said, they’re educational. But they’re also an experience of history in real-time, almost like watching the Hoover Dam being built, something Palm Springs Windmill Tours impresses upon you with its first stop, an exhibit of obsolete and phased-out designs, the newest of which, the massive Zond Z-50, was removed from operation as recently as August 2022. Visiting a wind farm might still mostly be the dominion of nerds, but perhaps not for much longer; to tour one is to witness the unfolding story of America’s green transition.

The day I talk to Spiglanin, the wind is buffeting the tour trailer at 35 to 50 miles per hour — he shows me an app on his phone that caught one gust clocking in at 63 mph. April to June is windy season on the farm, when the phenomenon that makes the region so desirable for the renewable energy sector — hot air in the Valley rising, allowing cold air from the coast to funnel, with gusto, through San Gorgonio Pass — is at its most forceful. Across the highway from the trailer, a cluster of turbines have stopped turning, which sometimes happens to protect the machinery when the wind speeds are too high, though Spiglanin doesn’t think that’s the issue today. Maybe a circuit got shut off?

The Windmill Tours operate on Wintec Energy-owned land, but there is little communication between the tour company and the businesses that run the turbines, Spiglanin says. Though the tours initially began as a promotional arm of Wintec in the 1990s, intended to dispel negative local perceptions about the turbines, those ended after 9/11, when it seemed like it might not be such a good idea to have strangers tromping around on a piece of the local power grid. In 2014, Palm Springs Windmill Tours started anew as an LLC; though it’s still located on Wintec-owned land, its purposes are no longer strictly promotional — which is great for visitors, but leaves Spiglanin to wonder about things like why Brookfield Renewables, a Canadian power company that leases public land in the nearby hills, recently removed over 450 older turbines but hasn’t yet replaced them with its planned nine newer machines.

The tours are actually a bit of a joke among the techs who work on the turbines. “They laugh at the word ‘windmill’ because they're like, ‘dude, it’s not a windmill, it doesn’t have a grist stone,’” Spiglanin says. “And I'm like, ‘well, windmills don’t just have grist stones. They also pumped water, they started with grinding grain, but then—.’ And so we get into this whole thing, and it turns out I know a lot more about their business than they do.”

Spiglanin has a PhD in chemical physics and retired to the Coachella Valley after working as an educator at the Aerospace Corporation, in Los Angeles, for years. Driving past the windmills, he used to wonder if they had a tour; “lo and behold,” they did, and he ended up marrying the woman who ran their marketing. When it comes to wind, he’s thus a bit of a self-taught enthusiast, doing his own research for the exhibits and joining wind energy Facebook groups to geek out over, and glean more information about, the archival photos he uploads. He has also independently published a book of his research, Backstories of the Palm Springs Windmills, which is available in the gift shop along with stickers that read “I’m a big FAN of renewable energy.” (Wind nerds love puns; when I was checking in for my tour, I was asked what a turbine’s favorite music genre is. Heavy metal).

A view of a turbine out the sun roof during a recent self-driving tour.Heatmap/Jeva Lange

Recently, Palm Springs Windmill Tours learned they’re not the only land-based wind tour in the nation. Another wind farm in Washington State offers tours from a sparkling new visitor’s center that has vistas of the Cascades, as well as a hard-hat experience that allows visitors to actually look inside a turbine (in Palm Springs, guests have to stay 100 yards back from the operating machinery, something my dad, who was with me, eagerly pressed by counting out his strides). But the Washington tour is run by Puget Sound Energy, the regional energy supplier; Palm Springs Windmill Tours is uniquely independent and history-focused, taking what Spiglanin — with a nod to the Alcatraz Island tours — calls the National Park approach: “We have something here. We’re interpreting it. We’re helping people and our guests who come through here understand it.”

Other nations have also caught onto the draw wind farms have for visitors. In Scotland, England, and Denmark, wind farm tours have taken off with an added dash of adventure — boats bring visitors beneath the blades of offshore farms, while others offer mountain biking or hiking trails around the turbines. “While there’s no data to indicate the size of this nascent slice of the hospitality sector,” writes Bloomberg, “there is ample research to suggest that travelers are not only unfazed by wind farms, but find them objects of fascination.” As a boat captain who runs tours at a wind farm off of Rhode Island told the publication, “I thought, ‘This is definitely going to be a moneymaker.’”

It’s not necessarily a heightened interest in renewable energy, though, that is bringing visitors. Spiglanin says many of the guests who come to Palm Springs are actually interested in robotics. That is particularly true this year, since the world’s major high school robotics competition is focused this season on the future of sustainable energy and power: “As a result of that, we had a family fly down in a private jet from San Jose so that these kids could learn about wind energy, and they flew back the same day,” Spiglanin tells me.

Palm Springs Windmill Tours doesn’t mind shifting to fit the interests of its visitors, whether they’re engineers or curious passing travelers to whom “325 megawatts” — the storage capacity of an enormous new battery facility being built on the grounds — is just a number. The tour adapted to COVID-19 with a self-driving tour (the one I took, facilitated by an app) as well as an open-air golf cart tour. They’re bringing back bus tours this summer, too, both so tourists can stay air-conditioned as the temperatures begin to crest 100 degrees, but also because — as I increasingly realized speaking with Spiglanin — you can’t beat the experience of having a live, personal wind “fan” lead your way.

You won’t get views like you do from taking “the tram up to the top [of San Jacinto Mountain]” — the 8th-ranked attraction — “and we don’t give you good food. We actually don’t serve any food,” Spiglanin says. People still mostly come to Palm Springs for the music and the golf courses, the casinos and the Elvis honeymoon house, the sun and the stargazing. But maybe one day, they’ll come for the wind, too.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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