Photographer Jamey Stillings: Seeing the Big (Solar) Picture

A person might wonder how images of a bunch of mirrors in a desert would yield beautiful – and important – photography. Welcome to the work of Jamey Stillings. In January 2013, our friends at the Forward Thinking Museum launched a gorgeous permanent online exhibit of Jamey Stilling’s images of the ongoing construction of the Ivanpah Solar project in the Mojave Desert.

Under construction since October 2010, Ivanpah is a 377-MW solar thermal complex that will use 170,000 low-impact heliostats (mirrors) to focus the sun onto solar receivers that sit on top of power towers. The receivers will drive turbines that will generate enough electricity to serve more than 140,000 homes in California during the peak hours of the day. The facility is located along the California/Nevada border on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The complex is comprised of three separate plants that have been built in phases over the last two and a half years. Once fully operational, the plant will reduce carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions by more than 400,000 tons per year.

Stillings' commitment to capturing the construction cycle of this generator provides important insights. His smart answers to our questions focus on impact, risks, goals – and conservation.

How did you first become aware of Ivanpah Solar and what compelled you to start shooting so early in its construction?

My earlier project, Bridge at Hoover Dam, came out of a photographic road trip and I spent two years on that. It reestablished the importance of long-term projects for me. I realized I need to find the big projects with subjects I can return to again and again. I met the wife of the CEO of BrightSource Energy at a workshop in Santa Fe in 2010. This gave me an early connection to the Ivanpah Solar project.

I want my work to highlight the intersection of nature and human activity and to bring questions about large-scale renewable energy to the foreground. This is an interesting project to watch. If such projects are documented well from beginning to end, we can learn from them and bring people from different points of view together to explore "What does it mean to build these projects?" via concrete, rather than abstract, examples.

Tell us a bit about photographing heliostats (up close and from the air). What did you find especially interesting about them as a photographer?

I love the geometric quality of the heliostats and the fields as they grow. It’s hard to put that into words. While up in the air photographing, I’m experiencing what I hope other people would experience, which, on one level, is intrigue and fascination.

Each [heliostat] is approximately the size of two garage doors. (One heliostat on this particular project is a pair of mirrors.) You see how these are articulated so that they will individually track and redirect the solar power. The real technology is in concentrating that solar energy efficiently. Once the superheating of steam is accomplished you've entered the realm of existing technology.

I really want to look at the landscape, to see the landscape, and in particular to see how it has changed since the last time I was over the site. The prime time to photograph is only 15 to 30 minutes each flight, though I’m usually over the site for about an hour and a half – 30 minutes, four times a year, times three years is a total of six hours of this "heightened seeing" to create the photographic essay.

Each time I fly, I need to build and layer upon the existing body of work – aware of what I’ve already shot – looking at changes with fresh eyes, and trying to stay intuitive as a photographer. It’s a dance. It’s a wonderful dance and, at times, it feels crazy, because you realize that successful creation of an entire body of work comes down to how you pull it all together during those small bits of time when you’re over the site.

Along with the details and abstract shots, I try to look above the mountain ridges and place the project within the landscape of the Mojave Desert. It’s quite spectacular as a piece of land art. It can be hard to describe to people that it is okay to look at it this way, to be excited and entranced by it, then still ask yourself the tough questions about how much natural land we are willing to commit to such projects.

It can be hard to describe to people that it is okay to look at it this way, to be excited and entranced by it, then still ask yourself the tough questions about how much natural land are we willing to commit to such projects.

You probably hear opinions about the impacts of solar thermal on water resources. What is your take at this point?

In the desert, water is a precious resource. BrightSource appears to be doing its best to minimize its use of water resources. A closed loop system that is air-cooled is being used. They’re trying to reuse grey water for cleaning heliostats. Water use needs to be an important part of all discussions and decisions about both renewable energy and carbon-based energy projects.

Ivanpah Solar project has committed $56 million toward protection and relocation of the desert tortoise. Can you talk about that?

This is a challenging question for all concerned. Are there positive impacts for other animals and plants species as well as humans in the larger ecosystem, by creating a power plant that makes enough power for 140,000 American homes? We have to weigh these potential benefits against the desert tortoise issue. In the long run, if you read through BrightSource Energy's information, the desert tortoise population in the Mojave Desert may end up being better off at the end of this cycle because of the amount of funding, time and resources they’re [BrightSource and Bechtel] committing to this project. They’ve created nurseries for the desert tortoise. They’re creating an environment where, instead of a 98% mortality rate, they are seeing a very high survival rate. They’re doing a lot of research on the desert tortoise, which they’re looking to share with other people. At the end of the day, there will be some positive benefits from the funding and time and research they’ve committed. Still, I hope we can avoid such difficult compromises on future renewable energy projects.

What are the usual causes of desert tortoise mortality?

The majority of desert tortoises are killed by raptors, coyotes and snakes. I imagine some of them also die from drought conditions. Some are trampled by wild burros and some are run over by vehicles on BLM roads. The majority of deaths are natural deaths. A minor component is from ATVs and cars. The nurseries are protecting dozens of tortoises, working to find alternative habitats, and learning a lot about them. Hopefully, this information and experience will be applied toward future protection of the desert tortoise in other parts of the Mojave Desert.

Is there other wildlife on the site?

There is wildlife on the site. They [the operators] are not encouraging ground-based wildlife within the area. That’s part of the reason the fencing is set up the way it is, because you have literally hundreds of miles of cables running through there. If critters chew on cables, you start to impact how things will function.

I’m trying to find concrete ways for people to understand so that real discussion and decision making can come out of that – that’s what’s important to me.

I have not seen a lot of birds at Ivanpah Solar. I imagine that bird densities are similar to nearby desert environments. They’re going to be less dense because of less vegetation and less access to standing water sources. I’m not an expert on this. There are still no statistics about avian mortality at the site – it’s going to be a low number for the project, but it will happen. Any bird that flies into that area of concentrated heat will die instantaneously. You would too.

I always want people to put issues like this in context. In talking about something like avian mortality, we must ask – how many birds are killed every year because of office buildings and residential houses in the US compared to how many are killed by energy projects? The National Forest Service estimates that 58.2 percent of annual avian mortality (about 550 million per year) is from buildings; 13.7 percent (130 million) is from power lines; 10.6 percent from cats (100 million); and 8.5 percent (80 million) from automobiles. When you get to wind turbines and airplanes you’re getting down to really small comparative numbers of less than 0.01 percent.

I’m trying to find concrete ways for people to understand so that real discussion and decision making can come out of that – that’s what’s important to me.

When interacting with the work crews on the construction site, did you get a 'barometric reading' about how workers feel about the project? As with your beautiful series of skyscraper iron workers, do you find yourself wanting to go back and photograph some of the Ivanpah 'energy pioneer' workers?

I wanted support, access and creative freedom. BrightSource was willing to give access, but Bechtel  would not grant the necessary ground access. While Bechtel controls access on the ground, aerial access is still available to me.” I want to maintain autonomy to be able to talk to all parties. You can’t do that as easily with corporate support. Without corporate support, I was able to publish in New York Times Magazine and in other publications.

The human story is an essential component to me: "What brought (the workers) to the project and how have they been changed by it?" I’m still hopeful I can make that happen.

Scale appears to be important to your work. Have you ever photographed the vast geographic impact of factory farms or other forms of energy production? Are there other sites you are interested in photographing?

I’m trying to find worthwhile niches for observation. The lesson coming out of the Bridge and Ivanpah Solar projects is the value of looking at issues from an aerial perspective. I would like to combine aerial photography with the on-the-ground documentation as I move forward.

If you’ve looked at Changing Perspectives on my site, the goal is to expand this work to a broader look at large-scale renewable energy projects in the American West. Giving Changing Perspectives a geographic region of concentration allows me to create a photographic survey of greater depth. I would like to examine wind, photovoltaic and cross projects; and if there are other renewable energy projects that are imminently photogenic, I would like to include them in that group.

My desire with Changing Perspectives is that the work lends a positive and constructive voice to our ongoing discussions and decision making about renewable energy development. I hope this work will eventually have historic merit, allowing us to look back at decisions we are making today. We may look back on projects, even a decade from now, and think, "Wow, that was the project that led to this new technology," or "That was the dinosaur project that never went any further." I suspect we will be seeing significant changes in a relatively short period of time.

If I lay out my priorities for you in the realm of energy, my first priority is energy conservation. That is where we get the biggest bang for the buck. When we conserve energy, we have it for the future, whether it’s for us or for later generations. Second, build distributed generation for houses, factories and commercial buildings in urban areas. Next, develop a smart grid that can accommodate an increasing saturation of distributed renewable energy.

But these steps don’t negate the need for large-scale renewable projects. We have to decide how we’re going to reduce our dependence on carbon fuels over time and how we’re going to preserve some of these resources for future generations. So I think the development of large-scale projects will continue to be an essential piece of this process. That’s why it's my focus right now. I feel that my talents ultimately are better used on this project work than in the commercial realm, but the two go hand-in-hand to remain financially viable.

You're from Oregon. How do you think that growing up in 'Ecotopia' has impacted your work?

In high school, we had curbside recycling and a bottle bill. I was involved in some of the first Earth Day celebrations in Oregon. I began hiking and backpacking at the age of five, bicycle toured on the West Coast in my teens, and led a Bikecentennial cross-country group in 1976. In that sense, the fiber of my environmental concerns is deeply ingrained.

What frequently happens, in the course of having a commercial photography business, is to put this documentary work on hold. As I grow older, I realize I have a finite amount of time to work. But the really important experiences and principles that I grew up with in Oregon – with a political science professor for a father and a president of the League of Women Voters as a mother – are in the DNA.

As energy production is becoming less "out of sight, out of mind," you are creating important documentation of this transition. How do you think this increased visibility is shifting the public discourse about our energy future?

We’ve been blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with having our energy resources more or less invisible to us for the last few generations. Unless you live near oil fields or a dam, you go to the gas station and get liquid and drive your car; you flip on a light switch and get light; you turn on your stove and have power to heat your food. We have taken all of this for granted as a population.

If we are going to create sustainable energy resources, we will start to see those resources. They’re going to be close to us. There will be wind turbines on hill sides, PV panels on our rooftops and everything in between. That’s a reality and it’s important for us. If we want fewer of these in our line of site, then perhaps conservation and efficient use of our energy is what we should be thinking about. In that sense, I do hope the work I’m doing will encourage people to think and talk about the issues.

When a blogger uses terms like "…the ecological disaster that is Ivanpah Solar," I say, "Look, when you use this terminology applied to renewable energy, I get that you’re upset about the use of the desert land, I get that you’re upset about the desert tortoise and I understand why. But when you use terminology like this, you leave no stronger verbiage for the BP oil spill, the Alberta Tar Sands mining or the Fukushima disaster. So, let’s find a place where we can talk, where we can realize that the answers are never black and white. There are always shades of gray. Let’s find a way to move forward constructively by talking and making responsible decisions." That’s my hope, that this work will make a positive contribution in the long run.

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