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Palm Desert, Calif., sizzling green

 Posted by on September 8, 2009
Sep 082009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Considering how the desert challenges our green aspirations, it’s surprising there’s not already a reality show: Extreme Green — Finding eco-friendly solutions in hostile places.

OK, so the title could use some work. The facts remain – the desert is great for producing heat and making solar power. But when it comes to human habitation, it’s an air conditioning-dependent, rugged place.

They understand that in Palm Desert, a small city in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, which gets about 350 days of sunshine a year, endures four months of 100-degree-plus weather and would make a good candidate for the Extreme Green pilot show. Palm Desert both wrestles with, and accepts its environs.

“Palm Desert has a long history of interest in the environment both in energy conservation and saving water and respect for the environment,” said Lauri Aylaian, director of community development for the resort city of 50,000.

Let’s start with transportation.

Look around the town and you will see tourists on the main drag, El Paseo, browsing the shopping district from courtesy golf carts, residents running errands in golf carts and golfers in, yup, golf carts zipping around the environmentally conscientious Desert Willow resort.

In the 1990s, (practically prehistoric times in terms of the recent green movement), Palm Desert began a test program using the golf carts as a way to keep the town pedestrian friendly, avoid traffic jams and reduce exhaust fumes. The slow, emissions-free electric travel became so popular that city leaders later went to the state and won enactment of a law making it legal to use golf carts on the majority of roadways in Palm Desert.

“You can get to most places in the city using your golf carts, about the only thing you can’t do is go on state highway 11 that runs through town,” Aylaian says.

Not only was Palm Desert an early adopter of green travel, its neighboring Desert Willow Golf Resort, is greener than one might realize just looking at it, Aylaian says. The resort’s two golf courses use native landscaping on the land surrounding fairways, which is healthy for wildlife and water-conserving; irrigation systems use recaptured gray water, and the resort has applied for Audubon certification, available to golf courses that retain areas suitable for indigenous birds and wildlife, she said.

As for golf course water use, she says that the course defies the common conception that golf courses are water hogs; city surveys show that water use on the course is no more per acre than in residential areas. (Leaving aside that apples-to-oranges comparison, it’s safe to say that the golf course does far better than many of its kin, with native vegetation saving on water and reducing runoff.)

Many other activities in this vacation spot, just a few miles from better known Palm Springs, are relatively green pursuits, like hiking and biking in the surrounding San Jacinto Mountains. There also are hot air balloon rides offered in the Coachella Valley, and less-than green jeep tours (which Aylaian won’t dismiss, but does note that they occur outside the town’s boundaries).

But while Palm Desert displays many features of the usual glitz-plus-nature consumer-based vacation spot, there are more environmentally mindful — even ground-breaking — green developments happening at the municipal level.

The municipal fleet, including the service trucks, is almost 100-percent powered by alternative fuels. The cars and trucks include hybrids, natural gas and electric vehicles.

But the city knows the rubber meets the road when it comes to off-street power use, and has set up aggressive incentives for making buildings more efficient.

“Air conditioning is essential in the desert; same as in Phoenix or Las Vegas,” says Aylaian.

Palm Desert has confronted energy use head-on with a five-year plan to reduce consumption by 30 percent. Halfway into that program, the city is seeing results, she said.

A key way that the city fosters energy independence is through a direct loan program crafted by Palm Desert leaders and enacted into state law in 2008. Under the program, residents can use money provided by a city/power company collaboration to finance alternative power systems, such as solar photovoltaic rooftop panels. Once installed, the homeowner pays the loan back through an assessment on property tax bills, Aylaian said.

The “enormously popular” program, which is only available in only one other California city, Berkeley, is largely funded through a partnership with Southern California Edison and other power providers, she said, The initial $5 million and the second influx of $2.5 million has all been “been snapped up,” she said.

The money also can  be used to finance more efficient air conditioning systems, white roofs and insulation.

Like the golf cart initiative, the power loans required a new state law (AB 811 also known as the Energy Independence Act), which Palm Desert leaders helped craft and lobbied for.

Fortunately, the leadership of the city, founded in 1970, has always been environmentally aware, Aylaian said, providing the backbone for such changes.

“I think the city founders have long been sensitive to the fact that we live in the desert, which is a hostile and fragile environment, and they’ve been concerned with preserving the environment and developing a climate that will be attractive in perpetuity.

“People choose to spend a lot of money to vacation here, and it’s important that we preserve the desert and the natural attributes of the desert so people will continue to enjoy coming here.”

Palm Desert continues to look for ways, big and small, that it can make a dent in power use. The city encourages energy improvements by waiving permit fees for energy upgrades. It operates a LEED-certified visitors center and runs a trade-in program for Christmas lights in which residents can turn in outdated incandescent for a free new string of LED lights that use at least 70 percent less energy. That’s a way to light up for the season, put cash into residents’ stockings and still keep slowing the city’s electrical meter.

Residents can probably expect more green gifts from persistent Palm Desert, a city that’s growing comfortable with pushing innovation to get what it needs.

Take those courtesy golf carts on the main street. They’re not only emission-free, they soon could be carbon-neutral. Palm Desert has applied for a grant to develop solar panels for their rooftops, so they can recharge while on the go without using any electricity.

Already the city-owned courtesy carts are unique in another way: They’re completely wheelchair accessible. When the Palm Desert could find no golf carts that were already manufactured to accommodate people with mobility issues, it ordered them custom made.

Extreme Green? Bring it on.

(Photo credits: Palm Desert downtown, city of Palm Desert; Desert Willow golf course, Desert Willow Golf Resort; Electric courtesy cart, city of Palm Desert)

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