Sustainable Energy

Using solar power to drill for…oil?

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Using solar power to drill for oil

Sitting on the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula, Oman is rich in fossil fuels -- particularly natural gas, some 11.73 trillion cubic feet of it.

It might, then, come as a surprise to see greenhouses popping up in the country's deserts.

GlassPoint Solar is a company looking to harness Oman's abundant renewable energy - sunshine - to actually help the country produce more oil in a process called enhanced oil recovery, or EOR.

"The way the system works is that giant mirrors focus sunlight on to a pipe containing water," Rod MacGregor, President and CEO of GlassPoint Solar, told CNBC's Sustainable Energy.

"The heat from the concentrating sunlight boils the water to produce steam, (and) that steam can then be injected into an oil well," MacGregor added.

Danita Delimont | Gallo Images | Getty Images

"There's a reason we want to inject steam into an oil well… the oil we are trying to produce is incredibly thick and viscous. The steam heats the oil up, the viscosity drops, and now it can be pumped more easily to the surface."

One key benefit of the system is that it displaces the need for gas in the oil production process. "In a country like Oman over 20 percent of all of the country's natural gas is used for oil production," MacGregor said.

"You can imagine that if 80 percent of that was now provided by solar, then that gas could be used for much higher-value purposes," he added. According to GlassPoint, its steam generators are able to produce steam at a "gas-equivalent cost of $5-$7 per MMBtu (one million British thermal units)."

GlassPoint's innovation comes via its enclosed trough system. Thin, curved mirrors are placed inside a glasshouse, and track the sun during the day. According to the company, the glasshouse is crucial in protecting the mirrors from sand and dust as well as high winds.

"In our case, the mirrors are indoors, they are made of a material that is slightly thicker than tin foil and thinner than a Coke can and consequently are very inexpensive compared to a mirror that has to withstand the harsh environment outside," MacGregor said.

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The company has big plans. At the beginning of November, Petroleum Development Oman – which is joint owned by the Government of Oman, the Shell Group, Total and Partex – and GlassPoint announced that ground had been broken on a "landmark" solar project called Miraah – Arabic for mirror.

According to the company, the project will consist of 36 glasshouses covering some 3 kilometers square. On average, 6,000 metric tons of solar steam will be generated every day, and the plant will save 5.6 trillion British thermal units of natural gas annually. The plant is to cost $600 million.

MacGregor added that the company had big plans for the future. "The product was optimized for steam generation on an oil field and there are many consumers of steam in oil production. Enhanced oil recovery is the most obvious one, but it is not the only one," he said.

"Power generation is an example, desalination… heater treaters, there's any number of steam driven processes on an oil field that we can provide the steam for and hence reduce the fuel consumption."