Using solar power to pump oil

In a remote stretch of the Omani desert, row after row of long, curved mirrors collect the sun’s energy.

Similar facilities have been gathering sunlight in the Southern California desert for years, using the focused light to generate electricity. In Oman, however, the facility generates steam. Pipes shunt the steam underground, where it coaxes heavy oil from the rocks.

The new solar steam plant is the first of its kind in the Middle East. It was built by GlassPoint Solar, a Fremont company that uses renewable power to squeeze oil from the ground.

GlassPoint, which has raised about $32 million in venture capital, has a small pilot plant in Kern County that has been generating steam for two years. The Oman plant, whose successful startup the company announced Tuesday, is 27 times bigger, producing an average of 50 tons of steam per day.

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It may seem odd that a country perched on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula would need solar power to pump oil. But the arrangement makes sense for Oman.

Oman doesn’t have the massive oil reserves of some of its neighbors, and its production started declining more than 10 years ago, said John O’Donnell, GlassPoint’s vice president of business development. Steam-flooding an old field can help boost production. Plus, Oman has heavy oil deposits that are hard to develop without steam.

Most steam-flooding operations burn natural gas to generate the steam. But Oman doesn’t have large gas reserves of its own. And the price of importing it is high, more than three times its current cost in the United States, O’Donnell said.

“It’s surprising to hear about an energy shortage in the Gulf, but with these rapidly rising economies there, there’s tremendous pressure to use gas for electric generation, desalination,” O’Donnell said.

Oman does, however, have abundant sunlight.

GlassPoint’s technology is a low-cost twist on the concentrated solar power plants of the past. GlassPoint’s troughs of mirrors are made from thin, lightweight and inexpensive aluminum sheets. A decent breeze could knock those troughs out of alignment, so GlassPoint places them inside greenhouses made of glass. Most of the materials can be bought off the shelf, from multiple suppliers.

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Oil field operators in the United States don’t have to worry about high natural gas prices the way their counterparts in Oman do. But GlassPoint’s technology could help them in other ways.

In California, oil companies are under orders from the state to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the fuels they sell, under a controversial policy called the “low carbon fuel standard.” By cutting the amount of natural gas burned for steam generation, GlassPoint could help oil field operators in California lower their emissions.

“Solar will be, by far, the cheapest way of complying with the standard,” O’Donnell said. “As that develops, obviously we’ll be keenly interested. We’re a California company.”

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