When travelers drive west along California's I-10 through the San Gorgonio Pass, a singularly spectacular sight greets them. Several thousand wind turbines tower above the desert floor and the slopes of 10,815-ft Mt. San Jacinto and 11,451-ft Mt. San Gorgonio. If travelers stop alongside the road near one of these wind farms, they can often hear the steady soft whirring sound of these three-bladed turbines collecting the 14 mph to 20 mph winds as they funnel through this mountain pass, and harvest this natural resource by converting it into over 600 million kWh. It's enough electricity to power all of the homes in nearby posh Palm Springs.

It also may be a potential business opportunity for electrical contractors with an ear for new markets, especially if they live in the regions of the U.S. where wind energy can be harvested and sold at electrical rates that are dead-on competitive with the power produced by traditional coal-fired power plants.

Spurred on by a need for more power production-as well as enticing financial incentives in some states-the wind industry is coming off its biggest year ever. In 1999, 925mW of capacity was installed, which is more than twice the amount added in any other year. In addition, 200mW of existing capacity was replaced with more efficient and more powerful turbines. California, Iowa and Minnesota saw the most large-scale activity, but sources say the installation of smaller wind turbines by homeowners is also on the rise.

In total, wind turbines produced about 2,500mW in 1999, and are expected to produce 2,650mW this year-enough to power over 800,000 households, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Washington, D.C. Internationally, Denmark, Germany and Spain are on major construction campaigns to add wind energy to their power grids.

Supporters of wind generation want wind farms to produce 5% of all of the electricity in the United States by 2020, and this aggressive goal may drive some business in wind system installation toward electrical contractors. One of the largest players in wind generation is Enron Wind Corp., a subsidiary of Enron Corp., the Houston-based electric utility. Enron has several large wind farms around the United States, including Green Power I, a 16.5mW facility with 22 turbines in the San Gorgonio area near Palm Springs that produces enough electricity for 6,000 homes, and a 2,500mW facility in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Enron markets the electricity produced at the California facility as "green power" produced without any of the undesirable environmental side effects of traditional power generation. With rotor wingspans topping 160-ft in some cases, these wind turbines are the largest in the world. However, Enron has a wind turbine under development that is twice this size.

The Storm Lake facility has 257 wind turbines that each generate up to 750kW and in total produce enough electricity for more than 71,000 homes. Ken Hach, Midwest regional manager for Enron Wind Corp. in Storm Lake, said four electrical contractors worked on the project. The companies specialized in underground wiring, overhead wiring and wiring of the turbines, respectively. A fourth electrical contractor was called in to complete work that another contractor was unable to finish. Hach said the wiring of the system was "not rocket science" for the contractors and was all done according to standard National Electrical Code wiring regulations.

One of the incentives for the development of wind resources in Iowa was a 1983 state mandate, the Alternate Energy Production law. This regulation required utilities to invest in wind energy production and some other alternative forms of energy production, such as producing electricity from plant and animal waste.

Along with nudging along the development of several large-scale wind farms, the law got some Iowa schools, farm and businesses interested in producing their own power from the wind and selling any excess back to the utility. In this process, called net metering, the power flows back into the utility grid when customers' wind turbines produce more power than they need.

Hach said the Upper Midwest has some of the best potential as a wind-generating region. "There is a huge wind resource out in the Midwest and the Great Plains," he said. "The problem is that where we have the great winds we don't have the people. In the future, we have to build the transmission to get the generation to the people."

Industry experts agree that business from wind turbine installations won't be a big market opportunity for electrical contractors unless they live in a region where wind energy can be produced at rates that compete with the power produced by traditional means.

"With 20 years running time on turbines, we have gotten the cost down from 18-19 cents per kWh to 3 cents per kWh," Hach said. Wind turbines account for a relatively small percentage of business for Chuck Marken, president of AAA Solar Service and Supply, Albuquerque, N.M., but he does install the systems for homeowners and promote them in his online catalog at www.aaasolar.com.

"Wind is more popular with grid-type things quicker," he said. "It's already that way in Europe. You can't just put a wind turbine anywhere. But if you have a real good resource of wind, you can take a site and make it a central generating facility that feeds into the grid. It's just like an electric plant. Wind energy has a good possibility within the next 20 years."

Marken, who was an electrical contractor before starting up AAA Solar Service and Supply, said the wiring for wind generators is not any different than traditional power wiring and that the electrical systems for wind turbines must be wired according to the National Electrical Code. He said the smaller wind generators installed by homeowners generally produce DC power that must be converted into AC through inverters, but larger turbines produce three-phase power. The power produced depends on the speed of the wind and the size of the blades on the turbine that collects the wind.

Homeowners with an interest in wind turbines also often install photovoltaic systems, too, said Randy Henk, president, Natural Energy Systems, White Bear Lake, Minn. "A combination of wind and solar is the way to go in Minnesota," he said. "There's not a lot of sun in the winter, but there's a decent wind resource. The solar works fine in the summers here. Wind and solar complement each other well."

Tim Harrington, a homeowner in Blue Springs, Mo., uses a wind turbine and photovoltaic array to supplement and backup the power that he draws from the utility grid. He needs 80kW of electricity a day to run his house, and he gets about 2kW each day from his wind turbine and 12 kW from the solar electricity that he generates. Harrington stores the power that the wind turbine and solar panels produce.

"We draw power from the batteries," Harrington said. "The utility grid, solar and wind turbine all contribute to supplying power to the house and keeping the batteries charge up. If we lose power from the grid at any time, we get all of our power from the batteries. The wind and the solar keep the batteries charged up. It's like taking your flashlight batteries and putting them in a battery charger. The wind and the solar send electricity to the batteries to top them off and to make sure they are full. As we need power, we pull it off of the batteries."

The wind market looks poised for some solid growth in the next few years, but the activity will be in several regional pockets, such as California, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas. Wiring wind turbines can be an interesting sideline for electrical contractors if they live in these market areas. Check out the list of alternative Web sites on page 19 to learn more about wind energy.