Shell looks to renewable energy to get at fossil fuel

One of the world’s largest oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell, has invested in a Fremont, Calif.  startup that uses solar power to squeeze petroleum from aging oil fields.

GlassPoint Solar’s technology generates high-pressure steam to heat oil underground, helping it flow to the surface. The company announced  Tuesday that  it raised $26 million in its latest financing round.

In addition to Shell, other  investors include RockPort Capital, Nth Power and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital.

Founded in 2008, GlassPoint last year installed one of its systems in Kern County, California. Shell’s involvement could someday help the startup take its technology worldwide.

“You bring in much more than money — you bring in other assets as well,” said GlassPoint Chief Executive Officer Rod MacGregor. “In this case, it could be access to other oil fields.”

GlassPoint has already branched out beyond California. In October, the company finished construction on one of its systems in Oman, working with a joint venture that includes Shell, French oil giant Total and the Oman government.

GlassPoint uses troughs of mirrors to focus sunlight and generate steam. It’s an old idea, employed by several solar power plants that have operated in Southern California for decades. But GlassPoint takes an approach that could radically cut the cost.

The company makes its mirrors out of thin, inexpensive sheets of aluminum. Wind could knock the lightweight troughs out of alignment with the sun, so GlassPoint puts them inside greenhouses made of glass. Automated washing machines keep roofs clear of dust.

The 120-person company makes the troughs itself, at a facility in Southern China. Most everything else — the greenhouses, the steam pumps, the pipes — can be bought off the shelf from multiple suppliers.

Oil companies often use steam to coax heavy, viscous oil from the ground. Typically, they use boilers fired by natural gas to generate the steam. But Oman, perched on the eastern shore of the Arabian Penninsula, doesn’t have much natural gas.

To create steam, the GlassPoint project in Oman will use “process water” — undrinkable water that comes out of oil wells. Fresh water in the desert country is far too precious to use, MacGregor said.

“You can stand in the middle of the oil field, look in any direction, and you’ll see nothing but sand,” he said.