A Fremont, California-based solar company says it has developed sun-powered technology for use in a surprising location: oil fields.
GlassPoint Solar was founded in February 2009 and began work on its first solar-enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project in 2011.
Today, GlassPoint has offices in Oman and Kuwait, in addition to its California home. The company completed several projects and is working on what will be one of the world’s most expansive solar plants. Called Miraah, the project will produce more than a gigawatt of energy for use in an oil field in Oman.
Enhanced oil recovery (EOR)
The oil industry has been using methods of enhanced oil recovery (EOR) for years. EOR involves injecting a substance into an oil reservoir that makes it easier to extract the oil and leads to a higher yield. Usually steam, natural gas, carbon dioxide or nitrogen is pumped in to either lower the viscosity of the oil or force it out of the reservoir. Chemical injection is also used, but to a lesser extent.
The method that GlassPoint Solar works with is steam. Typically, energy companies use natural gas to produce the steam, which they pump into the ground. GlassPoint Solar’s technology, however, uses energy from the sun.
About the technology
GlassPoint Solar employs mirrors suspended within a greenhouse, which concentrate and direct sunlight to pipes that contain water for use in the oil field. The concentrated sunlight heats this water to produce steam, which is then pumped into the oil reservoir.
GlassPoint's system uses many of the same pumps, pipes and controls as natural gas-powered EOR, meaning it can be easily integrated with existing equipment.
The company says its solar technology can produce 80 percent of the steam needed for an oil field’s EOR in a given year. (The remaining steam can be produced using natural gas when there isn’t enough solar energy available.)
GlassPoint also says its solution is cost-competitive with using natural gas. The fact that the technology is enclosed in a greenhouse helps to shield it from the elements. This means smaller upkeep costs compared to traditional solar. The company also doesn’t need to use as much steel and concrete to stabilize the equipment, and can use cheaper materials to produce it.
The technology can also save oil companies money, GlassPoint says, because they won't have to burn their natural gas in order to extract oil.
Effect on the environment
Of course, burning oil has a negative effect on the environment. Many conservationists say we need to kick our fossil fuel habit entirely. But until we do, solar technology could help to reduce the environmental impact of the oil industry.
Fossil fuels don’t just create emissions when consumers or businesses use them. Producing them requires a lot of energy and creates a lot of pollution, as well.
Oman uses 23 percent of its natural gas for EOR. Kuwait burns more gas for oil production than for electricity. Replacing that natural gas with solar will reduce the emissions associated with producing oil.
While using a renewable energy source like solar would obviously be greener than either, natural gas beats out oil in the environmental friendliness department. Using less natural gas for oil production means natural gas could replace some of the oil used to produce power.
There’s some uncertainty about whether this technology is green and whether it’s better for the solar industry or for the oil industry.
It’s good to see solar replacing some natural gas use, and GlassPoint Solar’s projects create some positive visibility for solar. But some say the company's solutions help to pull oil out of the ground, which is not sustainable in the long term.
That oil would likely be pulled out of the ground anyway. But it's possible this new tech may eventually make it cheaper for companies to extract oil, causing them to remove oil that otherwise would have been left in the earth. Or, it could help pull off a difficult balancing act, reducing the oil industry’s toll on the environment, which still provides raw material for countless other industries.
However, if the project is successful, it may nudge companies in other industries to adopt the use of solar. This could propel forward the development and widespread use of solar technology, as well as reduce emissions from energy use. Perhaps it could also lead to government incentives for reducing carbon emissions during oil production.
The oil industry is interesting new territory for solar power. Although this new technology helps to produce oil, it decreases the emissions involved in production, which is a step in the right direction. The long-term effects of GlassPoint Solar’s technology remain to be seen.
Image via: GlassPoint Solar
Anum Yoon is a writer who is passionate about personal finance and sustainability. She often looks for ways she can incorporate money management with environmental awareness. You can read her updates on <a href="http://www.currentoncurrency.com>Current on Currency</a>.