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 towers Getty

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.