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Desert golf resort turns a climate corner

The city of Palm Desert, Calif., recently installed these solar panels atop the parking lot at City Hall.
The city of Palm Desert, Calif., recently installed these solar panels atop the parking lot at City Hall.Chris Carlson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

But Palm Desert is changing its profligate ways. In fact, it is on is way to becoming a model for other California cities in how to deal with the changes global warming could bring.

Rising utility costs and dwindling water supplies are prompting this city of 42,000 to start conserving resources and reducing greenhouse gases.

Among other things, the city is using stingier irrigation systems and requiring homes to have more energy-efficient construction and drought-resistant landscaping.

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.

Also, the City Council is considering a plan to take advantage of the area's 350 days of sunshine per year by providing rebates and low-interest loans to businesses and homeowners who install solar panels. (Already, solar panels have been installed at City Hall.)

Goal to curb by third
Altogether, the city is seeking to reduce energy use by 30 percent over the next five years.

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 that can be applied 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.

Barbara Hoene watches her tee shot at Desert Willow golf course in Palm Desert, Calif., April 18, 2007. The course designed with drought tolerant plants to save water. With its lush golf courses and waterfalls, Palm Desert is the epitome of environmental excess. But this desert resort has become an unlikely model for how to deal with global warming, running buses on fuel cells, encouraging residents to commute in electric golf carts and even banning drive-through windows. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)Chris Carlson / AP

City officials recognize that energy and water — and the rising expenses associated with them — will remain among their most pressing concerns if temperatures continue to climb and water shortages in the Southwest persist, as expected.

"The high cost of energy is a wonderful motivator — it's called pain," said Patrick Conlon, who heads Palm Desert's newly created Office of Energy Management.

Plan drafted in Baltics
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 what they called 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."

The city has identified its biggest energy-gulpers as air conditioners and pool pumps and is pushing to get older buildings and homes retrofitted to make them more energy-efficient.

Also, developers are required to prepare new structures for future solar panels and construct buildings that are 10 percent to 15 percent more energy-efficient. Such changes could increase home costs between $5,000 and $10,000 in a region where the median price is about $430,000, according to builders.

Sprinklers out
Drip irrigation systems using recycled water have replaced sprinklers along sidewalks and in street medians. In addition, developers must use drought-tolerant plants in front yards, a requirement that has produced an unexpectedly colorful palate of yellow and red Mexican birds-of-paradise, feathery cassia and soft green yucca. The requirement also extends to golf courses, which have lots of sandtraps and cactuses.

City officials "made a decision to quit apologizing for the desert and to quit creating paradise in the desert," said Spencer Knight, the city's landscape manager.

John Phillips, who heads the Energy Coalition, an Irvine-based nonprofit organization that is advising Palm Desert, would like to see the city take its demonstration project further.

He wants the regional utility company, Southern California Edison, to pay for energy-efficient air conditioners and link major consumers to a system that would turn air conditioners off during peak times. He also would like to see homes hooked up to a real-time metering program so residents can see how much electricity they are using.

Six months into the project, Palm Desert has shaved consumption by about 7 percent. Only 200 million kilowatt hours to go.

"We have a lot of work in front of us," Conlon said.