The possibility of using solar power for oil production was raised years ago, but today three large-scale projects are proving a broader range of CSP use.
By Heba Hashem
As natural gas remains a scarce and coveted source in the Arabian Gulf, more oil producers are turning to solar steam to help recover heavy oil assets and save gas resources for higher value uses such as desalination, industrial development and export. The technology has also been deployed at two US oilfields. How feasible is this CSP application and who has it attracted?
Reduce gas use, ramp up oil production
Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), Oman’s national oil company and the country’s largest producer of oil and gas, contracted California’s GlassPoint last year to build a 7MW solar Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) system for its thermal oil recovery operations. The project, a first of its kind in the Middle East, is already approaching completion as it prepares to come online by the end of this year.
“After extensively researching solar EOR solutions, we’ve identified GlassPoint as the most promising technology for this pilot”, Dr. Syham Bentouati, PDO’s Corporate Technology Advisor, said during the project launch. PDO will be using GlassPoint’s solar EOR solution – which can reduce gas consumption by up to 80% – at an existing thermal EOR project in southern Oman, with the goal of reducing the amount of natural gas burned and releasing it for more profitable applications.
At the same time, PDO plans to invest around $26 billion in hydrocarbon exploration and production activities over the next five years. The massive outlays by PDO, as well as other companies including BP Oman, Occidental of Oman, and Oman Oil Company Exploration and Production, are in line with the government’s strategy to sustain oil and gas output over the long term.
Gas shortages have led Oman to contemplate the construction of a gas import terminal, besides the aggressive EOR methods it has pursued, including Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage techniques. The UAE, on the other hand, is already building a terminal in Fujairah to import LNG into the country by 2015.
CSP steam for oil production
GlassPoint’s solar EOR facility in Oman will use CSP to produce steam that will be fed directly into PDO’s existing steam distribution network. Spanning more than four acres, the system will produce 11 tons of high temperature (312ºC) high pressure (1,450psi) steam per hour, and upon completion will be 27 times larger than the company’s solar EOR system at Berry Petroleum’s 21Z oilfield in Kern County, California.
“The main driver for solar EOR in the Middle East is the critical shortage of natural gas in the region. Of the six GCC countries, only Qatar is a net exporter of gas. All of the others are now importing gas. Since EOR consumes a huge amount of natural gas, accounting more than 60% of a heavy oilfield’s operating costs, oil producers are turning to alternate means of steam production like solar EOR”, Rod MacGregor, CEO of GlassPoint, tells CSP Today.
EOR, also known as tertiary recovery, is commonly used in mature fields where secondary techniques such as water flooding no longer produce economically viable quantities of oil. As previously reported in CSP Today, EOR methods are responsible for the largest oil recovery out of the three stages involved, since after the primary and secondary stages the average reservoir will still contain around 70% of its original oil, meaning that EOR can sometimes extract just over half the total original reserves in place.
Some of the worlds’ oldest oilfields are found in the Middle East – with several older than 50 years. Given the anticipated rise in crude oil prices over the long term, a growing number of oil companies are considering extracting more crude from older deposits. Oilfields in areas lacking natural gas will especially benefit by creating steam for EOR without the capital investment of gas infrastructure.
Designed with the GCC in mind
GlassPoint is currently in talks with several national and independent operators throughout the MENA who have expressed interest in the technology. “Only our enclosed trough technology is designed for their dusty and humid oilfields”, notes MacGregor, whose company’s single transit trough technology encloses lightweight reflective mirrors inside a glasshouse structure to protect the system from dust, sand, and humidity.
An aspect that differentiates GlassPoint’s solution from others is that it was designed from the ground up to be deployed in the GCC’s oilfields. “The high pressure pump that we use, for example, is identical to those currently in use in oilfields throughout the region. This ensures access to people experienced in pump installation and maintenance, and that a supply of spares and consumables is already in place”, MacGregor highlights.
The approach was repeated at every level of the design so that the system could be installed and operated by people and companies with oilfield experience. Within the EOR market, a number of other potential applications for low-cost solar heat also exist. For instance, thermal EOR requires fresh water to be turned into steam, but fresh water is often in short supply in MENA countries, so desalination of groundwater is common.
“Thousands of gallons of oil and water must be pumped to the surface every day and those pumps require a large amount of electricity. GlassPoint’s technology can supply power for all three of these EOR applications – power generation, desalination and steam generation”, MacGregor explains.
Worldwide markets follow suit
Beyond the Middle East, other regions are also considering solar EOR, but for different reasons. “While gas scarcity drives deployment in the MENA region, price volatility and coming carbon pricing motivates producers in the United States”, states MacGregor. California, for example, produces about 40% of its oil using thermal EOR, and that is expected to grow to more than 50% in the next few years.
The world’s first commercial solar EOR project was deployed by GlassPoint in 2011 on an oilfield operated by Berry Petroleum in California. In the same year, Chevron USA launched the largest solar EOR project at one of the America’s oldest oilfields – the Coalinga Field - which began operations in the 1890s. Because the heavy crude oil at the field was not flowing readily, it became more difficult to extract than lighter grades of crude.
Using 7,644 mirrors to focus CSP onto a 327-foot tall solar tower, the steam produced in Chevron’s project will be injected into oil reservoirs to heat crude, thereby reducing its viscosity and making it easier to produce. This steam is typically generated by burning gas, but in this case, the solar-to-steam will supplement the gas-fired steam generators to help determine the commercial viability of using CSP instead of natural gas. BrightSource Energy has been contracted as the technology provider and for engineering, procurement and construction of the 100-acre project.
The global market for solar EOR is estimated at around $113 billion, based on the size of thermal recovery projects in regions with sufficient solar resources. In addition to the Middle East, other regions where solar EOR would be economically viable include California, West Texas, North Africa, Western China and Madagascar. Given that three solar EOR projects have now been deployed by leading power producers, it’s only a matter of time before the watchful oil and gas sector steps up to take advantage of this CSP application.
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