A small fire temporarily shut down the generator at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near the California-Nevada border Thursday. According to the Associated Press, some wires at the power plant melted and caught fire after a misaligned mirror zapped them with concentrated sunbeams.
When it is operating correctly, the array of over 173,500 heliostats reflect and focus sunlight onto boiler towers that create supercritical steam to drive turbines and create electricity — enough to power some 140,000 homes in California. It’s an efficient system that also has the unfortunate side effect of incinerating birds in mid-flight, but now we can also add “solar meltdown” to the list of potential power plant disasters.
According to San Bernardino County fire Captain Mike McClintock, those misaligned mirrors were reflecting the sun’s rays onto electrical wires about 300 feet up one of the boiler towers. While images from the blaze show some damage to steam ducts and water pipes, no one was injured and workers at the plant reportedly had things under control in less than 20 minutes. One of the boilers was shut down for repairs, but the plant itself remained online.