When oil prices began the steep decline more than two years ago from US$110 per barrel, the first thought of many at the forefront of the energy sector was that renewables would suffer. Low oil prices mean cheaper fuel, so why would others invest in new technology when budgets were taking a beating?
But renewable energy technologies began to be cost-competitive and – in some cases – more economical than using oil or gas to produce electricity. Meanwhile, ageing fields and the need to pump more crude out of the ground amid lower prices has helped demand to grow for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques. The global EOR market was valued at $60 billion in 2014, and is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate of about 25 per cent to reach $225bn in 2020, according to Zion Research of the United States. Thermal injection dominates the sector, accounting for more than 40 per cent of the total EOR market in 2014.
And using solar thermal technology to grab more oil from the earth is now a major opportunity, to the tune of $114bn, according to the head of Glasspoint Solar.
Solar thermal-enhanced oil recovery is a technique where steam produced from the heat of the sun is injected into an oil reservoir, facilitating the crude’s flow to the surface. Thermal recovery processes have traditionally burnt natural gas to produce steam. The use of alternate methods is driven by the need to send natural gas resources to the local power market or for export.
Solar thermal technology is already at work in concentrated solar power plants, such as Abu Dhabi’s Shams 100 megawatt power project. For Glasspoint, the technology was ideal for heavy oil extraction. This dense oil is often difficult to pull out of the ground. The American firm began seven years ago to create an enclosed solar technology that could produce steam. The next year, the company secured financing to take this advancement to the oil industry.
Glasspoint’s president and chief executive, Rod MacGregor, said that 60 per cent of a company’s operational spending was on fuel for steam generation. However, the sun can deliver steam for less than it would cost through natural gas.
He said that varied by location and the price of fuel, but it was a “substantial amount” less.
Glasspoint began producing steam three years ago for EOR with its 7 MW pilot project with Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), a joint venture between the Omani government, Shell, Total and Partex. “The success of the pilot is now paving the way for larger solar EOR projects,” said Mr MacGregor.
The company is constructing the 1-gigawatt Miraah thermal solar power plant with PDO, which will be 100 times larger than the pilot facility. “We have proven solar EOR technology, which is designed for the unique needs of the oil and gas industry,” he said.
The latest project will deliver more than 1GW of peak thermal energy, generating 6,000 tonnes of steam a day, which will be used in PDO’s thermal EOR operations to extract heavy oil at the Amal oilfield. The gas that is saved could be used to provide residential power to over 200,000 homes.
The next stop is potentially Kuwait, given that the market opportunity there is in the tens of gigawatts. The firm has a subsidiary located in the country, and has already started to see strong interest in using solar EOR technology. Mr MacGregor added: “Using solar at the oilfield will greatly help Kuwait achieve its plan of generating 15 per cent of the country’s energy needs through renewable resources by 2030”.
And the company is also in talks with operators in Egypt.
The growth of Glasspoint has been significant, which is a strong indicator of the market demand. The company has more than tripled the number of employees over the past year. Work in Oman went from nothing to 7MW to 1,028MW in just six years, while it took the US double that time to reach that figure.
This is just for oil recovery, but future applications such as desulfurisation could be just around the corner, giving solar a wider reach into the hydrocarbon sector.
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A technical session at Adipec on Wednesday at 11.30 in Adnec’s Capital Suite 19 will cover Integration of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) in the Oil and Gas Upstream Plants to Limit GHG Emissions and Fossil Fuel Dependence.
ABU DHABI OIL, Adipec 2016: The National's full coverage