December 2015

BOOK PROFILE: The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar

By Jamey Stillings; Foreword by Robert Redford
Published by Steidl, 2015; 154 pages, 60 photographs


Internationally renowned, Santa Fe-based photographer Jamey Stillings’ new book The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar synthesizes Stillings’ fascination for the intersections of nature and human activity. In October 2010, before construction commenced, Stillings began a three-and-a-half-year aerial exploration over what has become the world’s largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, stretching over about five square miles in the Mojave Desert of California.

The solar farm’s patterns and geometric relationships are heightened by specific times of day the photos were taken. Stillings often had only 15 to 30 minutes to work with the optimal sunlight he needed in the early morning or late afternoon for the long shadows that help delineate the mirrors and highlight the earth’s natural erosion lines and vegetation. Like Margaret Bourke-White’s industrial photography of the 1930s, some of the photos include workers, who provide a sense of the structure’s scale.

Paradoxically, Ivanpah Solar has raised questions concerning land and resource use, which sparked clashes between clean-energy buffs and conservationists who don’t want to see pristine landscapes blanketed by thousands of solar panels or heliostats (mirrors). To mitigate one issue, Ivanpah’s owners have spent millions of dollars to study and relocate the desert tortoise population. A second problem has been the impact of solar flux in the area immediately adjacent to the three 460 foot towers. Birds flying near the top of the towers during power generation can be injured or killed by the intense heat, a problem that currently impacts a few to several hundred birds each year. However, as Robert Redford notes, “Context and perspective are everything. A recent study estimates that bird deaths per gigawatt hour of electricity are seventeen times higher for fossil fuels, than for wind power, and while comprehensive statistics are not yet available for concentrated solar, initial data is closer to wind.”

Stillings has considered these contradictions within the environmental movement, local communities, the energy industry and the general public—issues that are applicable globally. Each set of circumstances is unique, but he is convinced that, on the whole, public gain outweighs the objections. The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar informs the current discussion on climate change, imparts a historical perspective, and, says Stillings, “…is symbolic of the promise and challenge we face in building a sustainable civilization.”

This book is the first of Stillings’ Changing Perspectives series, a project over the next few years that will document important new installations while seeking to inspire questions and transform viewers’ understanding about the nature and potential of renewable energy.

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