Solar Power Technology Is Being Developed For Enhanced Oil Recovery

There is a solar company in California that is using concentrated solar to extract oil from depleting fields. Using the steam generated from concentrated solar system, the steam is pumped into the depleted oil field to enhance the recovery.

As you may know, a parabolic solar trough (concentracted solar) is a huge, curved mirror that sits on a motorized base, allowing it to follow the movement of the sun throughout the day. The mirror’s unique parabolic shape is designed to gather a great deal of sunlight and then reflect that light onto a single point, concentrating the solar power. The concentrated solar is super heats a type of oil that in turn heats water into steam. In most cases, the steam is used to power generators which produce electricity.

When I first read this story I was dumbstruck, not able to escape the irony of oil companies that are spending millions everyday fighting to keep a tight clamp on solar development. It does, somehow, seem fitting that solar energy is being used to save the last drop of oil from a finite fuel source.

Concentrated solar power arrays to power enhanced oil recovery is looking for buyers and expects to find them before the before the year is out, says the head of a company that has developed concentrated solar recovery system product, and is currently in sales negotiations with oil companies. In an article in Utilities ME, by Florian Neuhof, using concentrated solar power to create steam that is then pumped into depleting oil field to enhance the recovery ratio is a cheaper alternative to using natural gas as an energy source, and will help oil companies increase their proven reserves, says Rod MacGregor, CEO of GlassPoint, a company that has pioneered the technology.

GlassPoints product will soon become popular with customers, believes MacGregor, who says his company is close to making its first sales.

“We will be announcing a deal to deploy a solar enhanced oil recovery system this year, we are currently at the contract negotiation phase,” he told Arabian Oil&Gas Magazine in November.

GlassPoint is based in California, USA, and is looking to cater to the oil industry there. But the Middle East is soon to become the company’s primary concentrated solar power market, says the CEO.

“We believe that in the short to medium term the Middle Eastern concentrated solar power opportunity will dwarf the California one, obviously there’s a lot more heavy oil in the Gulf than in California which means,” he says.

He is quick to point out the advantages that a widespread application of his technology would have for the region, and for the power and water sector in particular, which is suffering from a tight supply of gas.

“There are many countries in the Gulf that suffer from a shortage of gas, or, to be more specific, the gas is over-committed. Some countries are actually looking to import coal, and importing coal into a petrol exporting country is crazy,” says MacGregor. “ The reason they are doing this is because one of the huge users of gas is enhanced oil recovery, but they want that gas for power generators, desalination and the domestic industry, and of course to export.”

For oil companies, the big benefit is that, as cost is a factor in determining proven oil reserves of an oil field, lowering the cost of oil extraction using concentrated solar power will increase the amount of proven reserves.

“If you look at the cost of the equipment and you divide this by the amount of energy that you get out, it turns out that for most places where heavy oil is being developed, our solar technology is cheaper than using gas,” says MacGregor.

In addition, the companies profit from being able to market the gas they are not using for EOR. “If you switch oil fields from gas-based EOR to solar EOR, you free up gas which you can sell on,” MacGregor points out.

So far, solar has seldom been discussed in the context of EOR. But with the technology making rapid strides towards higher efficiency, the prospect of using it to create the requisite steam to push oil out of the ground has become more appealing.

This has not escaped the attention of the oil majors. Shell has recently commissioned a pilot project to produce steam for EOR from a parabolic trough system in Oman, and Chevron is building a solar tower steam project in California. Both projects have proven their technical concentrated solar power feasibility, but high capital costs have so far limited the application of the concept.

But now, less pricey solar products and systems have been developed and are ready for use. One of the companies looking to bring this technology to the market is GlassPoint. Founded two years ago, the company has already developed the technology, set up outsourcing agreements with producers in China, where it has also built a concentrated solar power demonstration plant.