Out in the California desert, just 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System has been harnessing the power of the sun—a little too effectively. In August 2013, a number of pilots flying over the solar plant, which counts Google as one of its investors and sits on approximately 3,500 acres of federal land in the Mojave Desert, reported that the glare coming off the plant’s equipment is blinding to the point of being a serious hazard.
“The copilot and I were distracted and momentarily blinded by the sun reflecting off of mirrors at the solar power plant facility located near the CA-NV border near the town of Primm,” one pilot, who was flying a small transport plane out of Boulder City, Nevada, recounted to the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). “At its brightest, neither the pilot nor copilot could look in that direction due to the intense brightness. 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. In my opinion the reflection from these mirrors was a hazard to flight because for a brief time I could not scan the sky in that direction to look for other aircraft.”
The glare, it seems, was coming from light reflected by the solar plant’s heliostats, which are 78-square-foot mirrors specially designed by solar company BrightSource to reflect the sun’s rays onto one of three 459-foot-high boiler towers.
The heat from all that concentrated light boils the water within, generating 377 megawatts of electricity, which is then sold to PG&E and Southern California Edison.
The heat that the reflected light creates is intense—it has even been known to scorch birds that fly through. (Although the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System keeps close track of these incidents—a February compliance report suggested that approximately five birds were killed by the plant’s heat that month.)