Nothing much grows on the arid, windswept hills around Tehachapi in southern California. The sun beats down on a barren landscape. Cattle graze on the few scattered tussocks of rough grass. But one thing sprouts in profusion: windmills.

This sight is among the environmental wonders of the modern world. The windmills line the ridges like ranks of marchers, giant blades swishing through the air in mesmerising rotation. Buffeted by the gusts which surge up from the San Joaquin Valley towards the high Mojave Desert, they harvest one of the oldest natural resources known to man - with the hi-tech accuracy of the microprocessor age.

The picture of the valley shown here comes from a new book Taking Measures: Across the American Landscape, by James Corner (Yale University Press, pounds 30). In all, there are some 5,000 modern wind turbines in the Tehachapi district, making this the single most productive source of wind energy in the world. Across the whole state of California, there are nearly 17,000: enough to satisfy at least some of the insatiable demand for electricity from Los Angeles and its suburbs, without poisoning the environment with fumes.

"There are a few people who still don't like the turbines on the ridges," says Paul Gipe, a locally based author and expert on wind energy. "But the majority see the wind industry as part of the local community, providing jobs and income."

Every spring, in that brief interlude when the parched hilltops erupt with wildflowers, Gipe helps organise a five-mile hike along the Pacific Crest, a trail through the heart of the area's wind farms, with spectacular views across the desert to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Up to 100 people turn up for a mixture of educational tour and social event. "It's an exhilarating occasion," says Gipe, "to feel the natural world around you, the flowers blooming underfoot, and to sense the excitement that here is an energy source that's also blossoming around the world."

The Californians were in the vanguard of a wind-energy revolution that has proved unexpectedly enduring. Tax credits in the 1980s fuelled a wind rush aimed at providing an alternative to oil. There were failures as well as successes, and even an enthusiast like Gipe accepts that California is not a model to be followed elsewhere. But Tehachapi still leads the world as the most productive area for wind energy.

Meanwhile, in Europe, 4 million people now get their electricity from the wind. The new wind harvesters are the Danes, the Dutch, the Germans and the Spanish. In Germany last year, 1,000 turbines went up, some more than 10 times as powerful as the early American designs. The turbines used - unlike the old-fashioned Tehachapi machines - are usually aerodynamically elegant, have solid, not latticed, towers, and are rarely placed in such large clusters.

Of all the sources of renewable energy currently being refined in response to the threat of global warming, wind has proved among the cheapest, the most efficient and, in general, the most popular. According to a recent report by Washington's prestigious Worldwatch Institute, wind power is now the world's fastest-growing energy source, with almost as much new wind power as new nuclear capacity coming on stream worldwide in 1995. In Britain, the last five years have seen more than 500 turbines go up in over 30 wind farms. But the potential is far greater still. The British Wind Energy Association recently called for an official target of 10 per cent of the country's electricity to come from wind power.

This plan, which would involve roughly 10,000 turbines, might meet with resistance from local people objecting to the changes in their favourite landscapes which these tall, prominent structures would inevitably bring. Already, vociferous opponents have scuppered numerous recent planning applications, leaving the wind enthusiasts frustrated. And yet, as the Tehachapi turbines show, there is no reason why a hilltop wind farm should not have a mysterious beauty of its own.

In any case, says the BWEA's Ian Mays, "to concentrate just on aesthetics is missing the point. The real dangers come from the environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels. Wind is clean, natural and economic. We should be seizing the opportunity." !

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