Solar Farm Reflection Impacts Pilots’ Visibility

English: Solar One power plant in Mojave Deser...

English: Solar One power plant in Mojave Desert, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunny California’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System has caused problems for pilots traversing the region.   Two anonymous complaints were filed in August, before the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System ever came online.  A pilot complaint stated that the intense brightness from the mirrors made it impossible to look in the direction of the plant, and an air traffic controller reported that they received complaints of reduced visibility from pilots flying over the facility every day, especially during the late morning and early afternoon.

The Mojave Desert is home to the world’s largest solar plant, and using technology known as solar thermal, these computer-controlled mirrors track sunlight and reflect it onto water filled boilers on top of towers measuring 459 feet tall.  Each mirror is 70 square feet, roughly the size of a garage door, and the facility contains around 300,000 of these mirrors.  That’s a lot of reflected light.  The sunlight gathered by the heliostats heats the water in the boilers to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, creating steam which drives turbines to create electricity.  By using sunlight to fuel these turbines, instead of fossil fuels, carbon emissions are estimated to be reduced by more than 400,000 tons annually.  The Mojave desert is an ideal location for this kind of facility, thanks to the dry air and elevation, the area receives sunlight 330-350 days per year.  The 392 MW facility covers 3,500 acres in San Bernadino County, California.  NRG Energy, Google, and CSP firm BrightSource Energy own the solar farm.

Unlike traditional solar power, Ivanpah combines thermal and solar energy power generation.  Data shows the power generated by the facility met 2.4 percent of electricity demand in California in 2013 and that number is rising.  January numbers showed the utility-scale solar photovoltaic production generated  enough to meet 2.9 percent of demand in January, proving California is quickly becoming a leader in CSP and utility-scale PV.  According to a November 2012 article in Smithsonian.com, this facility almost doubles the amount of solar power produced in the US.

During the environmental study for the project, the visibility risk for drivers on Interstate 15 and aircraft was evaluated.  This study found that pilots flying within 3,300 feet of the heliostats could experience temporary blindness and compromise safety.  BrightSource Energy, one of the site developers, has been required to develop a heliostat positioning plan within 90 days of beginning operation to monitor brightness and avoid potential hazards.

Flights between Las Vegas and Southern California fly over the area above or near the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System dozens of times each day.

NRG Energy Inc co-owns and operates the plant, and they are investigating the situation.  Company spokesman, Jeff Holland, said March 14 that they will respond in 10 days, so be on the lookout for an update from them this week.

‘Til next time,

Jessica

 

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