Is supersized solar plant Ivanpah (shown here from above) a model for cleaner solar energy, or too dangerous for its own good? Credit: Stuart Rankin on Flickr (Creative Commons License).

The bright lights of Las Vegas have long lit up the desert. But a new solar power plant near the California-Nevada border—the largest on the planet—is providing new illumination in the midst of the Mojave.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, owned by BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy, and Google, and backed by Bechtel and the Department of Energy (who provided a $1.6-billion loan guarantee), stretches 3,500 acres of public desert land near Ivanpah Dry Lake, Calif. According to BrightSource, the $2.2-billion project created more than 2,600 jobs during its construction and will provide clean solar electricity to more than 140,000 homes. (For a more in-depth look at Ivanpah, click here for an infographic from Business Wire or here for a dizzingly real virtual tour.)


Credit: Bright Source, YouTube.


Credit: Bright Source, YouTube.

A technical marvel, the plant’s 300,000-plus, 78-square-foot heliostats (mirrors)—which bloom in daylight, retract at night, and are cleaned by some super-sweet robots—reflect light to solar receivers (boilers) atop a trio of 459-foot-tall towers. Once that sunlight hits the boilers’ pipes, it generates a “superheated steam” that’s piped to a turbine and carried across transmission lines to power enough electricity to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by millions of tons.

Massive and impressive both from both land and space (see the satellite image above), Ivanpah is also proving to be dangerous to those flying above.

Credit: Bright Source, YouTube.

According to reports by the Wall Street Journal, the bodies of dead birds—more than 30 in September alone—have appeared on or around the plant. Cause of death? Biologists speculate that the birds, mistaking the mirrors for shimmering waters, are flying too close to the installation (where temps can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and getting burned. Literally.

Pilots, too, are suffering from Ivanpah’s solar power prowess. A number of them who have flown above or near Ivanpah have reported that the glare coming off the plant is blinding.

“At its brightest, neither the pilot nor copilot could look in that direction due to the intense brightness,” one pilot writes in a report to the Aviation Safety Reporting System. “From the pilot’s seat of my aircraft, the brightness was like looking into the sun, and it filled about 1/3 of the copilot’s front windshield.”

Though BrightSource maintains the facility is a “model for future projects,” its **environmental impacts—“water concerns, damage to visual resources, and impact on important desert species,” according to a 2012 National Parks Conservation Association report—and the cheaper costs of natural gas and photovoltaic solar panels, along with increasingly scarce federal funds for such projects, make it a “threatened species,” says the LA Times.

(**In all fairness to BrightSource, they did spend some $50 million to install “specialized desert tortoise fencing” and “inventoried, removed, and placed” native plants at the site.)

Do you think supersized solar plants like Ivanpah have a future in the US, abroad, or space (where the US Naval Research Laboratory is looking to develop a ginormous solar station that beams solar energy to earth)? Why or why not?

Feature image credit: Craig Dietrich on Flickr (Creative Commons License).