At night, there are few better places to be without electricity in America than Borrego Springs, California. The desert town, about 90 miles (145km) east of San Diego, is a star-gazer’s delight. It is dimly lit, with little street lighting and no traffic lights. The stars cast a spectral glow on 130 life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs, wild horses and other creatures, roaming artistically across the desert. The resort where I stayed, La Casa del Zorro (“home of the fox”), has a dusty paddock in which guests can lie back and survey the showers of light in the night sky. “Sic itur ad astra” says a sign. Reach for the stars.
But by day, having no power can turn Borrego Springs into a death trap. Temperatures in the town, which lies in the middle of the 1,000 square-mile Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, soar to about 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and the town’s 3,500 inhabitants depend on their air conditioners like oxygen. It costs them a fortune. Electricity bills at the 43-acre La Casa del Zorro soar to about $50,000 a month. But they see no alternative. “This is a hostile environment. Without air you die,” says Linda Haddock of the local chamber of commerce.
Most of the time, the town’s electricity lifeline is a spindly thread of poles and wire that runs down the mountains and across the desert, bringing electricity from the regional transmission network that serves San Diego and elsewhere. But it is fragile. Occasionally storms and flash floods knock it for six. When a particularly severe deluge struck in September 2013, knocking down 20 poles, Haddock says her phone lit up with text messages from panicked residents, who couldn’t even get fuel to escape because the local petrol pumps had stopped working. “People are going to die,” one said.
They didn’t. The storm gave the regional utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), a chance to make use of a battery bank on the edge of town, little known to townspeople at the time, which fed stored power to vital services like shops, petrol stations and a designated “cool zone” in the local library. It took 25 hours to resurrect the electricity-distribution network.
Since then, SDGE has linked the batteries up with a nearby solar farm, creating a microgrid that made Borrego the first town in America that could survive for hours on end on renewable energy and batteries. Another storm in 2015 took the town off-grid for nine hours while repairs were carried out. Borrego’s residents lost power only for ten minutes.
Such microgrids are becoming more common in America as utilities seek to offer better back-ups in case of storms and other climate-related emergencies. In California, they are emerging on military bases and in hospitals and prisons; even Alcatraz has one, though most tourists would not notice. It is partly a defensive move. Utilities are worried that the spread of solar panels to people’s rooftops and wind turbines to local communities will enable their customers to reduce their dependence on centralised electricity, or go “off-grid”. Microgrids are a way for utilities to remain in the energy equation.
Haddock calls them a “lifesaver”, but not all Borrego residents are convinced. This is a town of wizened faces and pony tails. It has a laid-back, counter-culture vibe that contrasts with the celebrity razzmatazz of Palm Springs, 90 minutes away. When a superbloom of desert flowers erupted in March, the most spectacular in almost 30 years, locals resented the tens of thousands of tourists that turned up, besieging their small restaurants, peeing in their backyards and stealing their citrus fruits. They called it “Flowergeddon”.
It’s a place where people come to take their lives off-grid, not just their power supply. So some express disappointment that the utility owns the microgrid, rather than the town itself, especially given the exorbitant bills they pay. They say they would rather generate electricity themselves by putting more solar panels on the roofs and batteries in their homes. They could, of course, but some say they cannot afford to.
Some townspeople have come up with a delicious conspiracy theory about why Borrego has been singled out for energy autonomy. It starts at La Casa del Zorro, a gem of southwestern architecture, with 6,000 square feet of meeting and banqueting facilities, and 67 rooms including 19 “casitas” or little guest houses. Built in the 1930s, it was for four decades owned by the Copley family, San Diego’s newspaper magnates, who used it for lavish get-togethers (the name Zorro was reputedly the nickname of a favourite mistress).
It is also rumoured to have been a secret hideaway for American presidents, in case they needed to escape a nuclear attack on the East Coast. It is said to have a kitchen capable of making 1,200 meals a day, a laundry vast enough to wash the sheets of a 1,500-bed hotel, and a temperature-controlled data centre complete with flood-detection tools. Suspiciously for a town so small, there is a tiny airport with a 5,000-feet runway just five minutes away. A photo in the lobby is signed by President Nixon, one of several political VIPs to visit the resort during the 1960s and 1970s, ostensibly as guest speakers at the annual conventions Copley Press held for its editorial staff.
Patrick Sampson, the resort’s general manager, jokingly hints that there is something to the story. “Come back soon and I’ll show you where the bunker is,” were his parting words to me. It seems logical that if the home of Flowergeddon were a bolt hole for presidents fearing Armageddon, it would also have a unique ability to sustain itself without help from the electricity grid. I ask an SDGE engineer whether there is any truth to this. “I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny,” he says with a wink.