Under Construction: The World's Largest Thermal Solar Plant : The Picture Show 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.
NPR logo Under Construction: The World's Largest Thermal Solar Plant

Under Construction: The World's Largest Thermal Solar Plant

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.

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

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Jamey Stillings

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

Jamey Stillings

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.