Solar technology can use heat from the sun to extract heavy crude from aging fields — an idea that is gaining ground and investment from Big Oil companies such as Shell.
Last week, Royal Dutch Shell, RockPort Capital and a few others invested a total of $26 million in California-based GlassPoint Solar. The money will spur the company's expansion in the Middle East — and it's all about crude oil extraction.
What the energy majors are eyeing in particular is GlassPoint's Enclosed Trough Concentrating Solar Power enhanced oil-recovery (EOR) process. That is technology that uses solar power to tap into wells that have already been "played out," but in which at least one-third of their potential heavy oil was not recoverable by conventional drilling and pumping means.
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Typically, tapping into played-out wells is done by using natural gas to boil water into pressurized steam to flood the well and make the oil more fluid for pumping.
And recent studies show that solar EOR may be better than natural gas EOR. Solar EOR can produce 16 percent more oil from a played-out well than natural gas processes — and there is no fuel cost. So the process works better and is more economically efficient.
GlassPoint is not the pioneer of this technology. Arco came up with it in the early 1980s, but it wasn't cost-effective. But since then, BrightSource Energy has taken the technology to new heights and taps into aging wells for Chevron in the Coalinga oil field. BSE has spent $67.3 million on this project, which began in earnest last year.
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GlassPoint already has a 300 kilowatt solar EOR project in Kern County, Calif., and another project close to completion in an oil field south of Oman. It is now seeking to expand to Kuwait and Bahrain where its technology will reduce oil-production costs. GlassPoint also notes that this technology will save on gas used in the Middle East to produce oil. That gas can instead be exported.
Along with Shell and RockPort, Nth Power and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital also chipped in for the GlassPoint investment.
The lesson in all of this: There is a confluence of interests between the fossil fuel big boys and renewable energy — who are anything but enemies. When you can calculate that renewable energy can improve big oil's bottom line, you're halfway to a feasible energy future.