Oman shows the lead on the past and future

Using steam to recover hard-to-reach oil deposits is old technology but the sultanate is breaking new ground by using the power of the sun to heat the water.
Petroleum Development Oman recently installed the Middle East’s first solar plant designed to boost production at an oilfield. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg News
Petroleum Development Oman recently installed the Middle East’s first solar plant designed to boost production at an oilfield. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg News

If you speak to people in the solar power industry they will proudly boast it is "the energy of the future".

By 2050 most of our energy will come from the sun, they claim. Oil industry buffs giggle when they hear such bold forecasts. They believe oil will continue to power our planet for generations to come.

Oman has just shown that perhaps the truth rests somewhere in the middle.

This summer, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) inaugurated the Middle East's first solar plant designed to boost production at an ageing oilfield. In effect, the 7-megawatt, 1.6-hectare facility uses today's sunshine to extract energy from fossil fuel reservoirs formed during the dinosaur age.

The concept is relatively simple. Hot steam is pumped into an oil reservoir to loosen the heavier oil that sits at the bottom, thus making it easier to bring to the surface. The technique dates back to the 1950s and is still deployed around the world.

What is unique about the Oman project is that, for the first time, the steam is generated not from burning other fossil fuels, such as natural gas, but from the sun. The solar-thermal power plant uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight on boilers that generate hot steam that is then injected into the reservoir to power the oil recovery.

This innovation has many advantages. First, steam generated from the sun is a lot cheaper than that produced from natural gas. Taking capital costs and the lifetime of the plant into account, steam from solar can be produced at less than US$4 (Dh14.70) per million British thermal units (btu). Steam from gas comes in at about $6 per million btu.

Solar thermal oil recovery is also more environmentally friendly since it leaves a much smaller carbon footprint. Burning natural gas to generate steam releases a lot more associated greenhouse gases into the atmosphere compared to solar.

As with any other renewable energy application, this solar technology is not devoid of challenges. Above all, there is the pesky problem of dust. Solar-thermal plants operate best in areas where dust levels are low. But across the Gulf, dust is a feature as common as camels. To counter this problem, Oman has opted to put its solar mirrors indoors. The greenhouse structures are easy to purchase, quick to erect and simple to maintain. Moreover, sheltering the mirrors from the wind allows those mirrors to be a lot lighter, making them both cheaper to build and easier to rotate to follow the sun.

If this solar technology proves successful over the long term it could spread. While the PDO facility will reduce Oman's use of gas by only 1.6 million cubic metres a year, barely denting the 5.4 billion cu metres it employs for steam injection, there's no reason why it could not displace 80 per cent of it. That would free up a lot of gas for lucrative export markets.

Oman's neighbours are watching closely. Many of them have their own ageing oilfields that could benefit from this solar application.

Saudi Arabia is looking to use enhanced oil recovery for more than 1 million barrels a day of its output by 2030. Given its abundance of land and sunlight, combined with its shortage of natural gas, solar-thermal oil recovery would be a perfect fit.

Kuwait already uses gas-fired steam to scrape oil from its ageing Wafra oilfield. It would no doubt be keen to preserve its scarce natural gas supplies in exchange for solar.

In Abu Dhabi, the Government has recently experimented with using carbon dioxide as opposed to natural gas to boost oil extraction at its Rumaitha field. Even in this instance, solar would serve as a cheaper and cleaner solution.

Globally, enhanced oil recovery currently uses a whopping 1.7 quadrillion btu of gas every year. Not all of that is in sunny places such as the Gulf. But there are plenty of deserts besides Oman's with oil in their belly. The possibilities are vast.

Paradoxically, Oman is showing us that it's possible to harness the "energy of the future" to preserve the energy of the past.

* Vahid Fotuhi is the chairman of the Emirates Solar Industry Association

Published: September 26, 2011 04:00 AM

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