Whenever I fly into Palm Springs “International” Airport, I am consistently amazed at the amount of development that is proliferating throughout the Coachella Valley below. Huge housing developments, resorts, big box stores, and golf courses now occupy land that was mere sand and desert scrub several years ago. As more people move to the desert, the demands on the valley’s infrastructure multiply – more roads, more water, more electricity. As noted in the WSJ.com Energy blog and re-published in the International Herald Tribune and Houston Chronicle, my hometown of Palm Desert is apparently leading the way in energy conservation and serving as a model for other cities throughout California:
In many ways, Palm Desert is the epitome of environmental excess.
Tourists and homeowners live in air-conditioned comfort in this desert golf resort where the mercury can climb past 110 degrees for days on end. And though the city gets no more than a trace of rain per year, it has lush green fairways, turquoise swimming pools, manmade waterfalls, and an artificial lagoon so big that hotel guests are taken across it in gondolas.
And how, exactly, are we doing this?
It has banned drive-through windows at fast-food restaurants to reduce pollution from idling cars. Public buses run on fuel cells. And residents are encouraged to commute in electric golf carts along designated lanes.
OK, I have to take issue with this. Palm Desert has never had drive-through windows at its fast food joints in the 20+ years I have lived there (unless they are out near I-10). While the other desert cities (i.e., Cathedral City, Palm Springs, La Quinta, etc) allow drive-throughs, the Carls Jr., Del Taco, and Starbucks in Palm Desert all require that you actually get out of your car (I know, what a novel concept) and enter the restaurant to purchase your food. It’s nice to see, though, that the city was able to spin its blatantly aesthetic drive-through ban as an environmentally positive step towards reducing “pollution from idling cars.”
Green is, after all, the new hotness. Someone give the city’s public affairs manager a raise!
The golf cart lanes have been in use for quite a while as well (I’m guessing 10+ years). We have lots of old people who like to golf and would rather drive their golf carts down El Paseo than regular cars, so it’s to be expected. We also have, I kid you not, a golf cart parade, where you can see the latest and greatest (and pricey!) custom golf carts drive down El Paseo.
As for our bus system, yeah, our buses are pretty impressive. Sunline, the local transit agency, converted its entire fleet to compressed natural gas (ooh, that safe, clean, and efficient fuel) in 1994, the first transit agency to do so in the ENTIRE United States. And now we have some zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell buses, which is cool, but how many people actually ride the bus in Palm Desert?
California regulators have committed $14 million to an energy-saving demonstration project, on top of more than $50 million the city already receives from the state for various efficiency projects. In return, regulators are asking that Palm Desert devise a model to apply to communities across the state.
“It’s a pretty progressive move,” California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey said of the city’s drive to become more efficient. “This is not exactly Berkeley or Santa Monica with tofu-eating environmentalists.”
Palm Desert, famous for its celebrity golf tournaments, is a well-to-do, politically conservative community with a large number of retirees.
That’s right, no Birkenstock wearing, tofu-eating hippies here. (I wear flip flops and hate tofu). Oh, and the plan is called the “Estonia Protocol.” Seriously.
The story of how Palm Desert wound up at the forefront of California’s energy-efficiency push had an unlikely beginning: Palm Desert officials made the pitch to state regulators while steaming across the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Sweden after a 2005 energy conference.
Some scoffed at the idea because desert cities are notorious electricity hogs. Undeterred, city officials drafted the Estonia Protocol, which sounds more like a spy novel than an energy-efficiency plan.
The PUC approved it 18 months later and in December gave Palm Desert $14 million for the project’s first two years. Palm Desert officials must present a progress report in 2008 and hope to receive additional funding.
“I don’t think I said, ‘This is ridiculous,’ but I certainly was astonished,” recalled the PUC’s Peevey, who was on the ship when the pitch was made. “Here’s the point: If they can do it or come close, most communities in the U.S. can do it.”
Six months into the project, Palm Desert has shaved consumption by about 7 percent. Only 200 million kilowatt hours to go.
So far, I’m actually pretty impressed by the results of this program. Lead the way, PD.