I was recently assigned by Senior News Editor Pierce Wright to shoot the new Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert.
Pierce thought it might look cool from the air so after waiting a few days for the winds to die down, I got a pilot to take the passenger door off a Cessna airplane and headed out to do a flyover of the plant.
As soon as you pass over some mountains to the southwest of Primm, Nevada, three giant gleaming fields of mirrors appear in the middle of the desert.
From the air, it almost seems like you are looking down on an alien planet. I had the pilot circle the plant a few times so I could get different geographic shapes and angles and shoot from different heights.
Depending on the side of the plant we were on, the mirrors of the solar fields appeared to keep changing colors – first silver, then blue, then brown. At certain positions, it was hard to look through the viewfinder of the camera since the light reflected on the boiler towers and heliostats were so bright. It was a very cool thing to see from the air, especially circling right over it with my side of the plane pointing almost straight down.
I drove out to the site the next week to get some ground-level images to complement the aerial photos. Upon arrival, I had a thirty-minute safety briefing from their environmental safety and health manager.
My uniform for the assignment was bizarre. For a start, I had to wear snake proof gaiters around my lower legs to protect from rattlesnakes and some special super dark sunglasses for safety, as it was hard to look directly at the tops of the three towers when they were in use.
Unfortunately, the winds were blowing at around 40-50 mph and they had to shut down all three towers and put the heliostats into "safety" position so they wouldn't get damaged so I couldn't really do much. The towers look a lot less cool when they are not glowing or "in flux" as they say out there.
I decided that since I had to leave to shoot the Academy Awards the next day and a big storm was moving in, that I would shoot the Oscars red carpet on Sunday night and then drive from LA back to Las Vegas early Monday morning so I could stop by the place again on the way back (it's about four miles south of the California/Nevada border).
Although one tower was down for scheduled repairs, two were operating but a layer of clouds was closing in. I got some photos before the two units went out because of the clouds but the wind was blowing them along pretty quickly so I went up on the observation deck of the tower that was shut down for repairs and luckily, as I got out on the observation deck, both the other towers lit up and stayed that way just long enough for me to shoot them together.
I was able to get a shot I had been looking for all day though – I wanted to find one of the heliostats pointed in such a way that I could get a working tower reflected in it and Cole spotted one as we drove on one of the tower access roads.