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Under Construction: The World's Largest Thermal Solar Plant

Posted: January 9, 2013

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For two years, photographer Jamey Stillings has been documenting the construction of a solar plant that will, for better or worse, forever alter the Mojave landscape.

Aerial view toward Clark Mountain of groundwork for future power block of Solar Field One. ISEGS, Mojave Desert, Calif., USA, Jan. 14, 2011.

Aerial view toward Clark Mountain of groundwork for future power block of Solar Field One. ISEGS, Mojave Desert, Calif., USA, Jan. 14, 2011.

The boundaries of Solar Fields Two and Three move around existing geological formations protruding above the alluvial slope of Ivanpah Basin. Interstate 15 crosses the distant dry lake bed, and Primm, Nev., is seen in the distance. June 2012.

The boundaries of Solar Fields Two and Three move around existing geological formations protruding above the alluvial slope of Ivanpah Basin. Interstate 15 crosses the distant dry lake bed, and Primm, Nev., is seen in the distance. June 2012.

Early fencing and ground preparation around a geological formation. April 2012.

Early fencing and ground preparation around a geological formation. April 2012.

Workers install a

Workers install a "heliostat" — or a device with a mirror that reflects the sun, or in this case the nearby mountains. Background shows assembled heliostats in "safe" or resting position. June 2012.

Installed heliostats. June 2012.

Installed heliostats. June 2012.

The heliostats in Solar Field One run up against an undisturbed desert terrain. June 2012.

The heliostats in Solar Field One run up against an undisturbed desert terrain. June 2012.

Heliostats in Solar Field One and active installation crews. January 2012.

Heliostats in Solar Field One and active installation crews. January 2012.

Excavation detail above Solar Field Two. July 2011.

Excavation detail above Solar Field Two. July 2011.

Concentric circles of service roads in Solar Field Three. June 2012.

Concentric circles of service roads in Solar Field Three. June 2012.

Detail of service and boundary roads for Solar Field Two. January 2012.

Detail of service and boundary roads for Solar Field Two. January 2012.

Completed tower for Solar Field One surrounded by thousands of heliostats. Eventually, they will send concentrated solar thermal energy to the top of the tower, superheating water to create steam and drive turbines. October 2012.

Completed tower for Solar Field One surrounded by thousands of heliostats. Eventually, they will send concentrated solar thermal energy to the top of the tower, superheating water to create steam and drive turbines. October 2012.

Solar Field One before dawn. The field of heliostats has been partially installed around the tower and power block. April 2012.

Solar Field One before dawn. The field of heliostats has been partially installed around the tower and power block. April 2012.

Before heliostat installation had begun on Solar Field Three. Interstate 15 and the Primm Valley Gold Club are in the distance to the left. October 2012.

Before heliostat installation had begun on Solar Field Three. Interstate 15 and the Primm Valley Gold Club are in the distance to the left. October 2012.

The three solar fields and their respective towers. October 2012.

The three solar fields and their respective towers. October 2012.

A section of the Mojave desert photographed before full construction commencement of Ivanpah Solar (left) and two years later (right).

A section of the Mojave desert photographed before full construction commencement of Ivanpah Solar (left) and two years later (right).

According to photographer Jamey Stillings, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) will be the "world's largest concentrated solar thermal power plant" when complete at the end of this year. That's if we want to get all technical.

In plain terms: There's a huge solar plant under construction in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and Stillings has been documenting the process since the very beginning. Did you know this was happening? I didn't.

"What I found along the way is that this is a very complicated issue," he says over the phone, as I ask him to explain in simple terms what he's seen out there.

The core complication is this: Solar power is meant to be a cleaner, more sustainable alternative to our major sources of energy. And yet the construction of a plant of this magnitude means forever altering the natural environment.

"Every single large-scale solar project has encountered this intersection of trying to accommodate the environmental concerns of conservation," says Stillings, "along with the need of an industry that wants to build renewable energy projects. How do you find that middle ground?"

According to his website, Ivanpah Solar will consist of more than 300,000 mirrors directing the sun's energy toward three towers, "creating 392 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 U.S. homes." (Though of course, the exact math can change over the course of construction.)

Some opponents might argue that plants like Ivanpah could be constructed, for example, on land previously stressed by agriculture. Or that it's sprawling over the home of the desert tortoise, a threatened species, and "marring" a relatively untouched landscape.

On the other hand, Stillings, says, "The Ivanpah Solar project has committed $56 million toward protection and relocation of the desert tortoise" as part of its project.

Bottom line, he says, it's clearly a nuanced and complicated issue.

"I want the images to raise questions," he says. "I want people to be inspired by something that is ... beautiful and fascinating — the geometry of a man-made structure existing within the organic structure of nature. ... But I also want people to ask themselves the same questions as if we were siting a new subdivision or a new Walmart or a new coal-fire plant."

For most of us, the rule of thumb when it comes to our own energy consumption is: out of sight, out of mind.

"We have lived in a world where our energy sources are invisible. We go to the gas station and liquid comes out and we drive away. We flip a switch and the light comes on," Stillings says.

But he thinks that might be changing — at least if there are more solar plants like Ivanpah in the works.

"We are going to be moving toward a place where we see where our energy comes from: from that field over there. And that's a change that I think we need to accept as a part of moving toward a more sustainable model," he says.

He thinks these photos might help get us there — to that point of energy-awareness. But also, he says, "I just love looking at this. Looking at the intersection of the hand of man and nature — and what comes of that. And looking at it from the air gives us a perspective that most people don't get: It puts it into the landscape."

His more encompassing, long-term photo essay, Changing Perspectives, documents "ongoing utility-scale projects in the West with a long-term goal of making it a global study." Above all, Stillings hopes to spark conversation. Join ours in the comments.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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