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