Desert Solar Power Plant a Risk to Air Safety, Say Pilots

Pilots are saying the Ivanpah solar facility is sending unwanted glare their way | Photo: avgeekjoe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Pilots flying both private and commercial aircraft near Las Vegas have filed complaints abut possible unsafe conditions caused by a large solar power plant in the Mojave Desert, according to documents filed with a state agency, and Las Vegas officials are urging the plant's designer to do something about the problem.

According to a March 10 letter from the Las Vegas McCarran Airport's Planning Manager Teresa Motley, pilot complaints of unsafe glare from the tens of thousands of billboard-sized mirrors at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) have been coming in since at least August 2013, with at least one pilot saying the glare from the facility interfered with the crew's ability to scan the sky for nearby aircraft.

Officials with the Clark County Department of Aviation (CCDOA), which runs McCarran and oversees other regional airports, are urging project designer BrightSource Energy to measure glare from the facility and include its findings in the compliance reports the project's owners file monthly with the California Energy Commission (CEC).

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In her letter, Motley provided two examples of complaints that had been forwarded to the Clark County Department of Aviation by the federal Aviation Safety Reporting System. The first was from the pilot of a small plane that flew over Ivanpah in August 2013 on its way out of the Boulder City Municipal Airport (BVU), a facility that accommodates both private aircraft and Grand Canyon tourist charters.

Co-pilot and I were distracted and momentarily blinded by the sun reflecting off of mirrors at the solar power plant facility located near the CA-NV border near the town of Primm. This solar power plant which I believe is still under construction consists of three massive circular arrays of thousands of mirrors oriented inward toward a central tower. As soon as we cleared the mountains southwest of EVU [probably a typo for BVU] from 6,000 to 12,000 FT MSL still climbing there were three very bright reflections (one from each solar array) of the sun into the pilots and copilots eyes. The reflection from the northernmost array was the brightest and the largest and grew in size as we flew closer to the facility. The flight path of our aircraft passed overhead of this facility. At its brightest neither the pilot nor co-pilot could look in that direction due to the intense brightness. From the pilot's seat of my aircraft the brightness was like looking into the sun and it filled about 1/3 of the co-pilots front windshield. In my opinion the reflection from these mirrors was a hazard to flight because for a brief time I could not scan the sky in that direction to look for other aircraft.

Perhaps more soberingly, the second letter quoted came from an air traffic controller working out of the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZLA) in Palmdale, which coordinates air traffic throughout Southern California and adjacent portions of Nevada and Arizona. According to this letter, also filed in August 2013, pilot complaints about visual interference from ISEGS were commonplace as early as last summer:

Daily, during the late morning and early afternoon hours we get complaints from pilots of aircraft flying from the northeast to the southwest about the brightness of this solar farm. They usually ask us what it is because they don't know. On this particular morning, an air carrier complained about the brightness and reiterated that it was "nearly blinding." I reported this to Management and was told that they were going to do nothing about it. They then suggested that I tell the pilot to report it through the safety reporting system that they have and to report it myself. I have no idea what can be done about this situation, but being a passenger on an aircraft that flew through this airspace and saw it for myself, I would say that something needs to be done. It is extremely bright and distracting.

McCarran and CCDOA are asking BrightSource -- and, presumably, its now managing partner in Ivanpah, NRG Energy -- to survey the amount of glare from ISEGS heliostats using hand-held meters, and to provide airline pilots with contact information for the Ivanpah plant's managers.

Interestingly, the Ivanpah project's final Environmental Impact Statement, released in 2010, addressed the issue of glare and its likely effect on airline crews. That document downplayed the possibility of hazard from said glare, but committed BrightSource to monitor and mitigate any actual hazard that turned up once the project was built.

On a typical weekday, about 120 direct commercial flights between McCarran and major Southern California airports fly within the viewshed of ISEGS's fields of heliostats.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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