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The Ivanpah Solar Project: Generating Energy Through Fields of Mirrors

Time

When I visited the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which sits in the Mojave Desert on the border between California and Nevada, I had to be careful where I looked. The engineers warned me not to look directly at the receivers arrayed on top of the centralized solar towers, which collected the desert sunlight concentrated by thousands of mirrors on the desert floor. The solar receiver was as bright as the heart of the sun, glowing with a retina-melting white. I had to force myself to look away.

Jamey Stillings, though, has far better eyes than I do. A photographer known for his work capturing mega-scale projects like the new bridge at the Hoover Dam, Stillings has been tracking the construction of Ivanpah since 2010, when he began an aerial survey of the site. His epic black-and-white images of Ivanpah reveal how different this solar plant is from other major infrastructure projects. Unlike solar photovoltaic plants, which generate electricity directly from sunlight, Ivanpah uses hundreds of thousands of curved mirrors to reflect and concentrate the desert sunshine. Three tall solar towers, each ringed by the mirrors, collect the heat and generate steam, which drives electric turbines. When it finally opens later this year, it will be the biggest solar thermal plant in the world.

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