A desolate stretch of the Mojave Desert has been transformed by hundreds of thousands of mirrors into the largest solar power plant of its type in the world. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across five square miles (13 square kilometres) of desert near the California-Nevada border, has formally opened.

solar power
An aerial view of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near Primm, Nevada. The largest solar thermal power-tower system in the world uses 347,000 computer-controlled mirrors to focus sunlight onto boilers on top of three 459-foot towersGetty

 The site, about 45 miles (75 kilometres) southwest of Las Vegas, has virtually unbroken sunshine most of the year and is near transmission lines that carry power to consumers.

Using technology known as solar-thermal, nearly 350,000 computer-controlled mirrors roughly the size of a garage door reflect sunlight to boilers on top of three 459-foot (140-metre) towers. The sun's power is used to heat water in the boilers' tubes and make steam, which drives turbines to create electricity.

The plant can be a startling sight for drivers heading toward Las Vegas along busy Interstate 15. Its vast array of mirrors creates the illusion of an ethereal lake shimmering on the desert floor. In fact, it's built on a dry lakebed.

While it creates clean, green energy, the system is not without its envioronmental problems. Dozens of dead birds from sparrows to hawks have been found on the site, some with melted feathers. The suspected causes of death include collisions with mirrors and scorching.

The mirrors are angled to focus sunlight on a boiler at the top of a tower
The mirrors are angled to focus sunlight on a boiler at the top of a towerGetty
Sunlight is concentrated onto a boiler in Tower One
Sunlight is concentrated onto a boiler in Tower OneReuters
Water is heated to produce steam to move turbines providing power to more than 140,000 California homes
Water is heated to produce steam to move turbines providing power to more than 140,000 California homesGetty
The Google logo is spelled out in mirrors that track the sun at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Google is one of the major investors in the scheme
The Google logo is spelled out in mirrors that track the sun at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Google is one of the major investors in the schemeReuters
Vehicles drive along a road through field of heliostats in the Mojave Desert
Vehicles drive along a road through field of heliostats in the Mojave DesertReeva Steenkamp / Instagram
Just some of the 347,000 computer-controlled mirrors
Just some of the 347,000 computer-controlled mirrorsGetty
An aerial view of some of the heliostats in one solar power generating plant
An aerial view of some of the heliostats in one solar power generating plantGetty
Katie Kukulka, an information officer with the California Energy Commission, takes photos during a tour of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System
Katie Kukulka, an information officer with the California Energy Commission, takes photos during a tour of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating SystemReuters
The world's largest solar thermal power-tower system, the three towers are surrounded by thousands of computer-controlled mirrors
The world's largest solar thermal power-tower system, the three towers are surrounded by thousands of computer-controlled mirrorsGetty
An aerial view of one of the boilers on top of the three 459-foot towers
An aerial view of one of the boilers on top of the three 459-foot towersGetty
A solar receiver and boiler on top of a tower at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System are seen in an aerial view
A solar receiver and boiler on top of a tower at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System are seen in an aerial viewGetty