If you’re like me and you obsess over any and all aircraft related disasters that pop up in the news, you may have heard stories of pilots being blinded by the world’s largest solar powerplant, Ivanpah. You may also be considering putting solar panels on your roof. You, like me, are probably wondering if you could accidentally cause the next big crash by trying to safe money on electricity.
Rooftop solar panels are not reflective enough to blind pilots. Rooftop panels work by absorbing light, not reflecting it. In fact, photovoltaic solar panels reflect less light than flat water. Only large scale thermoelectric facilities reflect enough light to present a danger to pilots.
That’s a relief! Your solar panels are absolutely safe. But what exactly is the difference between a rooftop panel and the kind used at Ivanpah? And what makes those panels so scary for pilots?
Two Kinds Of Solar Panels
There are essentially two kinds of solar power, photovoltaic or PV, and solar thermal. PV work by taking sunlight and using it to excite the electrons in a superconductor, like silicon. This directly produces an electrical current.
Solar thermal power plants are usually huge facilities in places with intense sunlight where heat from the sun is concentrated into one central place to heat up a medium like molten salt or gasoline using mirrors called heliostats.
That medium then boils water to create steam and power a turbine which spins to produce electricity.
This is the kind of solar facility which can kill birds. By reflecting a huge amount of the sun’s heat energy to one place, the power plant creates a zone that is so hot that birds flying through can end up fried.
How That Blinds Pilots
The heat from the sun just happens to be conveyed through exactly the same medium as its light: light. This means that along with the tremendous heat that the power plants collect, they also launch a ton of the sun’s light back into the air.
This produces a glare that can be seen as far enough for pilots to see no matter how high they’re flying, which can be extremely dangerous. Some pilots have described the facility as being as bright as the sun.
Since Ivanpah has been been opened, other power plants have darkened their heliostats using a certain coating in order to mitigate this problem. However, many air safety officials still worry about the potential dangers that these devices represent.
Why Rooftop Panels Don’t Do This
First of all, even if you can fit a facilty the size of Ivanpah on your roof then you still probably shouldn’t since a heat that’s enough to melt bird feathers is probably also enough to burn your house down.
Second of all, the kind of photovoltaic panels that are designed for placement on your roof are actually designed to reflect as little light as possible, because they use that light to produce electricity. As a result, they actually reflect less light than standing water does, and still water isn’t really known for being almost as bright as the sun.
This means that even if you live right next to an airport you won’t be hurting anyone if you put solar panels on your roof.
Could You Blind Pilots From Your Roof?
Let’s assume that for some reason you are a monster who wants to blind pilots from your roof, and you were planning to get solar panels just because you thought they would cause trouble for your fellow man. Is it even possible?
Before I say anything I want to make it clear that I don’t think that you should put mirrors on your roof to blind pilots. I think that doing so would be kind of evil, and it’s wrong to do evil things.
The question here is not whether the light from your doom mirrors will reach pilots, since light will not stop unless it hits something and is absorbed.
The question is also not whether you can find mirrors that will reflect enough light, although if you wayour death ray to keep working you’ll need to keep all of the mirrors you use clean.
The real question is whether you can produce an amount of light that’s big enough to distract a pilot using only an amount mirrors that will fit easily on top of your roof?
You will not be able to do this just by coating your roof in mirrors unless you live right next to an airport. People drive or fly past ordinary mirrors all the time without crashing. No, you’ll need to construct a structure that focuses sunlight on a part of the sky where planes are frequently flying.
The answer seems to be yes. Since mirrors are of negligible weight, and since they would likely be spread out across the wholr of your roof, you could probably arrange a series of mirrors so that they could annoy pilots as hey flew past you.
Your device will also probably only be able to cause a nuisance to pilots for a few hours each day, since you’ll need to take into account the angle at which the sun hits your mirrors in order to figure out how to get them to reflect into the sky.
Time of day doesn’t really affect Ivanpah, since its mirrors are built to reflect large amounts of light in all directions.
Not only that, but these devices wouldn’t really be able to do much more than annoy people flying past, since in order to get an intense enough light to cause a problem the light would have to be extremely focused.
So while you could certainly get yourself in a lot of trouble this way it would ultimately be pointless, since your mirrors wouldn’t really be potent enough to do anything.
Your Roof Will Never Be Dangerous To Pilots
Basically, putting PV panels on your roof won’t hurt anyone but big electric companies, which is essentially the same as hurting nobody.
Even if you make a concerted effort to shoot beams of light into the air, you probably won’t even hit anything unless you live next to an airport, and even then you would probably get caught before you caused any damage.
So put all the solar panels on your roof that you want! They’re harmless!