An Aerial View Of Middle Earth, From Israel
Nov 09, 2022
Ashalim solar thermal power station went viral due to its otherworldly appearance, raising awareness about green energy but also potentially demonizing it.
The solar thermal tower bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Eye of Sauron, Ashalim, Israel. © Amazing Aerial Agency / Omer Tsur
For several years, a taste of Tolkien’s iconic Middle Earth has been hiding in plain sight in Israel’s Negev desert. Fans of the Lord of the Rings prequel show on Amazon Prime, Rings of Power, helped a tower in the desert go viral due to its eerie resemblance to the eye of Sauron.
Sauron’s eye’s real name is the Ashalim Solar Thermal Power Station. Operated by BrightSource Energy, it is part of a triple installation in the Negev tracking a way forward for solar energy.
Amazing Aerial photographer Omer Tsur, also a Lord of the Rings fan, was caught by surprise by the comparison. “I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies, but I haven’t thought about the Ashalim solar power plant that way until it went viral. It’s actually very cool to get that perspective and to see this old place in a new light—literally.”
Photographing Sauron’s Eye
Tsur’s story with the Ashalim solar tower began years before the Internet discovered its strange appearance. In 2019, shortly after the tower was commissioned, the photographer was on a shooting trip in the city of Beer-Sheva, about 40 kilometers north of the village of Ashalim, when he noticed a strange light in the sky.
“I got curious about that floating white dot in the sky so I drove to get a better look,” he says, recounting his journey to Ashalim. “As I continued driving south, the light just got bigger and more powerful, so it was hard to look at the road when the tower was in front of me. When I saw the tower and not just the light, I finally understood what I was seeing.”
Ashalim’s solar tower stretches 260 meters tall (853 feet), making it easy to see from kilometers away. However, the tower itself is only part of the complex. It is surrounded by a field containing over 50,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight onto the tower. The reflected rays form the beacon visible from miles away and heat the water inside the tower’s boiler, which powers generators deep in its base.
Once Omer learned what the tower was, he was even more interested in photographing the installation. “At the time, it was a unique experimental construction and the fact that it is a self-sustaining energy subject interested me a lot.”
However, photographing such a large, bright object came with many challenges. “The light was blinding, even with sunglasses, almost as if you were looking at the sun itself,” Omer recalled, “and the area of the mirrors on the ground is huge and the tower is very tall, so to capture it all and to convey the feeling you experience in front of it is quite different.”
Can You Compare A Solar Tower to a Lord of the Rings Villain?
The newfound Internet fame of the Ashalim solar tower gave voice to residents of the local village, many of whom have conflicting feelings about the tower. They are proud of their local anomaly, but also feel that it is an eyesore. Some point out that the harm of the tower goes beyond aesthetics, as the beacon burns and even kills birds.
This may be the first time that many people outside of Israel heard of the Ashalim solar tower, but the controversy around the installation predates the Rings of Power. When the plan was unveiled, people criticized it for its inefficiency and high costs, as the solar thermal tower is more expensive than other forms of harnessing solar energy.
This prompted the British-Israeli physicist David Faiman to write an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post defending the Ashalim complex, which includes the powers and two other installations, as necessary innovations that will help the country harness solar power to provide power 24/7, as economically as possible, despite weather disruptions. Innovation in renewables is necessary, particularly in Israel, which only receives 7% of its power from renewable energy.
Although the comparisons between the Ashalim solar tower and Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron are funny (and at least a little apt), it’s worth wondering what the comparison with one of fantasy’s most notorious villains will do to perception of solar power. Across the world, proposed installations of solar and wind power plants are met with concern about the visual impact on the landscape and environmental impact. Meanwhile, oil rigs and power plants are not on the receiving end of the same worries about appearances, even though they are objectively worse for surrounding communities and arguably much uglier. In many situations, the concern over the impact of solar and wind power is fueled by misinformation. As media hops on the trend of comparing Ashalim to the Eye of Sauron, hopefully that doesn’t inspire others to think of solar power as the villain.
Omer Tsur does not think this will happen but sees the new media attention as a positive thing. “I’m hoping it will help in any way to promote green energy awareness because our planet needs it badly.”
Tsur also recounts an anecdote from his photo trip that shows not all people look at Ashalim and see a scary beacon. “Some kids were with me and they were amazed and excited by the sheer size and bright light,” he remembers. To children, Ashalim is not a fantasy villain but the source of a potentially bright future.
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