PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at Ivanpah, a game-changing solar farm

The first tower standing at close to 200 feet

A first-of-its-kind, massive solar thermal farm that uses mirrors to tap into the sun’s heat, is under construction in the desert in California, a short drive from Las Vegas. On 3,600 acres of land covered in tumble weeds and home to critters like the desert tortoise and rattle snakes, Silicon Valley startup BrightSource and contractor Bechtel are almost a year into construction of the 392 MW farm. There areĀ  hundreds of posts stamped into the ground that will eventually hold the mirrors (called heliostats), and one of the three 450-foot plus central towers, which will play a crucial role in turning the sun’s rays into electricity, is slowly rising up out of the dust.

In a rare opportunity, I got a chance to take a tour of the farm, called Ivanpah, which when fully built in 2013, is supposed to nearly double the amount of commercial solar thermal electricity produced in the U.S. While many solar thermal projects are being discussed by utilities and solar vendors, very few of this size — or even over 100 MW — have been financed, permitted and are under construction in the U.S.

BrightSource CEO John Woolard

Walking around Ivanpah is awe-inspiring for a few reasons. The sheer size — 5.6 square miles — is enormous, and BrightSource says there were around 700 workers on the site on Monday, and at peak construction, there will be about 1,400 jobs. While one of the central towers stood at close to 200 feet already, that tower will more than double, rising to 490 feet by the time that plant starts producing solar power.

Then there’s just the sheer elements of the desert. The temperature was a dry 100 degrees as we surveyed the site — complete with steel-toed boots, hardhats, safety glasses and neon construction vests — and workers commonly arrive on the site at 5:30 a.m. and leave by 3 p.m. to try to beat the heat. Safety precautions for workers (and visiting media) include things like checking under trucks and cars to make sure there are no tortoises shading themselves behind tires.

A project of this size needs massive financing, and BrightSource managed to secure funding from Google (s GOOG), NRG Energy (s NRG), and a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. BrightSource has also filed to raise more money via an IPO, which should put deliver a nice return for the company’s venture capital investors, including VantagePoint Capital, Alstom, Morgan Stanley, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Chevron Technology Ventures. (s cvx)

Here’s a slideshow of photos that I took during the tour of Ivanpah, close to a year after it started construction in October 2010.