For the last two years and change, Jamey Stillings has been photographing the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, in California’s Mojave Desert, from the air.

The images show the size--and the beauty--of the solar farm, as seen from above.

But they also force us to consider an aspect of sustainable energy that isn’t much discussed--not just how we can develop utility-scale green energy, but where we can develop it, too.

In Ivanpah’s case, the farm has disrupted the habitat of threatened desert tortoises, drawing ire from some environmentalists.

Stillings hopes his photographs will help people come to sound compromises about use of public lands for these types of projects.

"What typically happens is that things fall on one side or the other," he says. "Either it’s completely pro-industry and doesn’t look at these environmental issues, or it gets too far off on these issues that end up dominating the discussion, rather than being a part of it."

"We will continue to need to develop utility-scale energy projects…So what we’re really talking about is how we can most responsibly develop large-scale renewable energy," says Stillings.

"…To find a balance between the demands that we, as a society, continue to make upon the environment, and our desire to protect that same environment."

Stillings sees his Ivanpah photographs as just one part of a larger project, which he’s calling Changing Perspectives, intended to document sustainable energy development internationally.

But despite whatever tensions are playing out on ground level, from the sky, it’s hard to deny Ivanpah’s beauty.

Co.Design

A Photo Tribute To America's Biggest Solar Farm

Jamey Stillings’s dazzling photographs of the Ivanpah solar thermal plant in California force us to consider not just the "how" of green energy, but the "where," too.

The more our society talks about renewable energy, the better off we’ll be in the future. Bold action is needed (and soon), but it’s hard to imagine it coming about without greater awareness, and that can only come from more dialogue--in our politics, our media, our households, and everywhere else. Right now, the conversations we’re having are mostly abstract. Green energy is good. Oil won’t last.

But what does that sustainable future actually look like? For many, I’d imagine, it’s gauzy images of windmills and solar panels. Our understanding of fossil fuels, on the other hand, is much more visceral. As individuals, we’ve watched gas prices go up and down at the pump; we’ve seen unforgettable images of spilled oil devastating the natural environment; we’ve seen what our electric bills look like when we leave everything on through the night. With his gorgeous aerial photographs of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System--a massive expanse of solar panels in California’s Mojave Desert--Jamey Stillings is hoping to expose people to a less familiar side of the green energy movement. To make it a bit more real. And ideally, to give everyone a bit more grist for the conversation.

Stillings started shooting Ivanpah Solar, which is headed by BrightSource Energy (and partly funded by Google) and aims to eventually become the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, in 2010, after completing a book of photography on a bypass bridge built near the Hoover Dam. "From a creative standpoint, I wanted to see if there was a project that could tie in my aesthetic interests with my environmental interests," he explains.

But as it happens, Ivanpah Solar has become a place where the "green is good" abstraction has been brought forcefully back down to Earth. Though it’s provided hundreds of green jobs and is working toward supplying some 140,000 homes with sustainable energy, the plant has come under fire from environmentalists for disrupting a threatened desert tortoise habitat. The conflict forces us to consider not just how we can produce sustainable energy in the future, but where we can produce it, too.

Stillings hopes his photographs can help people become more familiar with those issues--and perhaps help opposing sides find common ground in a debate that’s often paralyzingly entrenched. Determining what public lands are suitable for these types of projects is an "evolving issue," Stillings says, but the conversation has been slow to evolve along with it.

"What typically happens is that things fall on one side or the other: Either it’s completely pro-industry and doesn’t look at these environmental issues, or it gets too far off on these issues that end up dominating the discussion, rather than being a part of it," he says.

"We will continue to need to develop utility-scale energy projects . . . So what we’re really talking about is how we can most responsibly develop large-scale renewable energy . . . To find a balance between the demands that we, as a society, continue to make upon the environment, and our desire to protect that same environment."

And while Stillings’s photographs don’t exactly capture the plight of the desert tortoise--he’s only managed to gain ground access to the facility once, last summer, on an assignment for The New York Times--they do give a somewhat new face to solar power. It’s not just a matter of outfitting the rooftops of businesses and homes; meeting our demand will require more projects like Ivanpah Solar, solar farms that are not just pet projects but the products of real companies. From above, Stillings gives some sense of the scale we’re talking about, which is massive to the point of geometric beauty, and potentially at odds with the environment, certainly in an aesthetic sense if nothing else.

Stillings, who has largely self-funded the project, intends to see it through to Ivanpah Solar’s completion, and he’s recently partnered with the Blue Earth Alliance in an effort to find more resources to continue his documentation. But green energy is a global endeavor, and Ivanpah Solar is only one ongoing construction project of many. So Stillings is currently envisioning a larger project, Changing Perspectives on Renewable Energy Development, intended to look at sustainable energy development internationally.

You can find out more about Changing Perspectives on Stillings’s site, and see more of his Ivanpah Solar photographs here.

All photography © 2010-2012 Jamey Stillings, All Rights Reserved.

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4 Comments

  • Marlin

    Tortoises is only part of it. Migrating birds get instantly vaporized when passing through the reflected sunlight of the mirrors to the main tower. Another is the scale of the footprint this project is. All for only 140,000 homes - it hardly seems worthwhile. I think more could be accomplished simply by changing building codes to require new developments be self powered with a renewable energy source - be it wind, solar, etc. Every building should have solar, even if it only supplies a portion of what it consumes.
    If one has never been to the desert, it would be easy to assume that it's just some desert wasteland void of any significant life. Truth is, that this misconception couldn't be further from the truth. The desert is full of life. Much of it is smaller, and much of it may only reveal itself seasonally or otherwise, like after a rainfall in the summer. But the beauty of life does exist out here in great quantity. All of it important. All of it should be considered. We should consider what we as individuals can do on our own rooftop and behold the beauty of a personal  accomplishment we can admire everyday. Achievements that contribute to the greater good of our society. And goodness sake, turn off the gizmos and lights when they're not needed.

  • Marko Capoferri

    Yes.

    Thank you for clarifying that the tortoise is but one of the many organisms that bears the brunt of these projects. That the tortoise is a threatened species makes it a politically viable topic, but there are other topics worth exploring, like the disruption of Indian sacred sites, which has come up regarding this and other large-scale solar projects in California. I'm glad to see some sober and constructive commentary on this monolithic issue.

  • Whea7

     I agree completely.  I really wish the U.S. government would provide more incentive for purchasing and installing solar systems for personal residences.  They're a remarkably high initial investment, even if they pay off in the long run.  Maybe helping people get over that initial bump would provide returns in the long run in decreasing dependence on coal and oil.

  • Amber King

    Amazing pictures. Other countries should also invest in solar energy. This is a good way of helping save the environment.