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.

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:

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.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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