Solar plants find use in oil fields
Heavy oil is a thick, viscous crude typically produced via steam injection, a type of thermal enhanced oil recovery (EOR) that injects steam into a reservoir to heat the oil, making it easier to pump to the surface. Steam injection is used around the world, from Canada to the Middle East and China, but was first deployed in the heavy oil fields of California about 50 years ago.
Steam generation is a major cost associated with the production of heavy oil, accounting for more than 60 percent of a field’s operating costs. Natural gas is needed in enormous quantities, driving up cost, while also subject to volatile price fluctuations and often imported from other states or regions.
An alternative solution to control these costs and eliminate price volatility–while reducing fuel emissions–comes from an innovative and unexpected energy sector: solar.
In 2011, GlassPoint Solar unveiled the world’s first commercial solar EOR project on Berry Petroleum’s oil lease in Kern County. Kern is home to much of California’s oil reserves and a hub for innovation across the energy sector. It was here that the process for steam injection was invented in the 1960s.
The process originally burned crude oil itself to heat water and generate steam before shifting fuels to natural gas for both environmental and economic reasons. Today, we’re witnessing another transition as oil companies turn to solar to produce steam, further reducing costs and the environmental impact of EOR operations.
The Kern County pilot quickly lead to another pilot in the Middle East, testing solar in harsh desert conditions and validating the economic value of solar steam in gas-constrained regions.
After piloting the technology for more than four years, Oman’s largest oil and gas producer Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), partnered with GlassPoint to build the Miraah solar plant. PDO and GlassPoint broke ground on Miraah in 2015 and the plant began producing solar steam in late 2017, on schedule and in line with budget.
Today, the Miraah facility is in daily operations and has met all steam output targets required by PDO’s Amal oilfield since the facility was brought online. Construction is ongoing with steam production ramping up to meet PDO’s future steam demand. Upon completion, Miraah is expected to deliver over 1 gigawatt of peak thermal energy to generate 6,000 tons of steam per day (37,800 barrels of steam per day).
Building on the success of Miraah, GlassPoint also recently announced a memorandum of understanding with Occidental of Oman, the largest independent oil producer in the country, which could lead to the construction of a large solar thermal energy plant exceeding two gigawatts at the Mukhaizna oilfield in the Sultanate of Oman. As the lead developer of the proposed project, GlassPoint would deploy its proven solar technology to produce up to 100,000 barrels of solar steam per day. The solar steam would be purchased by Occidental and used to facilitate production of heavy oil, providing a cost-effective, zero-emissions alternative to steam generated using natural gas.
Back in Kern County, GlassPoint is working with California-based Aera Energy to build an integrated solar project at its Belridge oilfield, one of the largest and oldest onshore fields in the United States. This plant will consist of an 850 MWt solar thermal facility, producing 12 million barrels of emissions-free steam per year; and a 26.5 MWe photovoltaic facility generating electricity to power other oilfield operations.
Once complete, the Belridge Solar project will deliver the largest peak energy output of any solar plant in California. It’s also projected to save more than 376,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, offsetting the equivalent of 80,000 cars.
The idea of using solar energy to power oil production may sound counterintuitive, but the unprecedented challenges facing the oil industry today demand new ideas and solutions. Many oil companies are responding to these market changes and embracing the energy transition. For example, in December 2018, Shell announced a comprehensive emissions reduction plan to meet future energy demand while also managing the energy transition – two years after the company established its New Energies arm, which backs companies working on energy storage, electric vehicle charging and solar energy, including GlassPoint. More recently, Exxon Mobil decided to purchase wind and solar energy for its Permian Basin production operations. In 2018, it also joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, along with Chevron and Occidental.
The convergence of renewables and conventional energy is creating opportunities to produce hydrocarbons in a cleaner and more efficient way. In turn, this growing partnership will help unlock more natural resources to grow developing economies, create jobs and maintain the energy production that fuels modern life.