Los Angeles — Don Quixote would have thought twice about this one. Nearly 200 feet tall, this towering structure stands out in the windblown desert near Palm Springs -- the most powerful wind turbine operating in the nation today and the first large-scale machine in the Golden State's history to provide wind-generated electricity for customers of an electric utility.
Dedicated by Southern California Edison just a month ago, the wind turbine is expected to serve up to 1,000 customers. And though it is regarded as a strictly experimental project, the machine nonetheless serves as visible proof of alternative energy exploration in a state considered to be one of the country's most aggressive promoters and developers of wind energy.
"Wind energy certainly has prospects for commercial viability," says Dr. Frank Goodman of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which serves as a research center for some 300 utilities. "We don't know for certain yet, so people are trying to remain neutral and just see what happens."
But, continues Dr. Goodman, who is EPRI's project manager for wind power systems, "all the signs to date have been very promising that these machines will perform."
Although large-scale use of wind energy is still in its early phases, experts say it may play a bigger role -- and do it sooner -- than solar energy. That, they say, is because wind energy technology is further advanced and its economic feasibility is increasing rapidly.
California, along with Hawaii and Oregon, has been at the forefront in developing wind energy. Already the state, with its windy mountain passes and desert plains, has set a goal of supplying 10 percent of its energy needs with some 2,000 wind turbines by the year 2000.
There are two policy levers working on behalf of wind power in California: Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s discouragement of investment in nuclear power and the California Energy Commission's efforts to make alternative energy investment as inviting as possible.
Currently, homeowners who install some sort of wind-powered generator can reap a 55 percent state tax credit. If energy commission officials get their way, similar investment and other tax credits will soon be available for commercial users.
In addition, the commission is hosting a wind energy conference this spring, aimed at luring financial "heavyweights" into the field by explaining investment opportunities to them.
The commission also has funded various demonstration projects, including a 25 - kilowatt wind turbine to be used at a milk bottling plant in a northern California city.
In a recent preliminary study of the state's wind resources, the commission found that at least 13,000 megawatts -- substantially more than the state's year 2000 goal of 8,000 megawatts -- could be generated by the California winds.
In the private sector, Southern California Edison ranks at the top of the list of US utilities experimenting with wind power.
Many utilities in the United States have made studies of potential wind power sites. Others, including companies in northern California, Oregon, and Hawaii, are either planning or are already committed to building experimental turbines. But, according to EPRI, Southern California Edison (SCE) is one of "a very few" utilities to actually spend money on a largescale generator.
SCE officials point out that wind energy will never replace other more-conventional fuels. However, the utility recently revised its future resource generating schedule to include a commitment of 120 megawatts of wind-generated power by the year 1990 -- 40 times more power than is produced by its current wind turbine, or enough to save approximately 400,000 barrels of oil per year.
SCE is pushing toward its goal with the construction this spring of another experimental turbine -- this one shaped like a giant egg beater -- and with negotiations to buy wind power from private entrepreneurs who will generate it on their own small-scale "wind farms."
"This is really the beginning of large-scale use," says Bob Thomas, wind energy program manager for the California Energy Commission.
"Our goal here," he continues, "is to work ourselves ou t of a job. We want to turn it over to the private sector.