In sun-drenched southern Oman, vast acres of desert dotted by pumpjacks and oil rigs stretch far into the distance. But nestled in this petroleum landscape known as the Amal West oil field are 4 acres of glass and steel greenhouses, sparkling in the sun like an oasis in a mirage. As incongruous as these greenhouses may seem, they are no optical illusion. They are home to giant parabolic mirrors that produce – of all things – steam.

Instead of harnessing heat from the sun to drive machinery or generate electricity, these mirrors track the sun throughout the day, focusing sunlight on a tube containing water to create steam used for oil extraction. This concentrated solar power architecture, called an enclosed trough, is designed specifically for the oil field, and it represents a new form of powering thermal EOR.

Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) partnered with California-based GlassPoint Solar to build and test the new enclosed trough technology. GlassPoint built similar structures in February 2011 for its first commercial solar EOR project with Barry Petroleum in Kern County, Calif. The success of that project brought the young startup solar company to PDO’s attention.

In January 2012 GlassPoint and PDO broke ground on the Middle East’s first solar EOR project, completing the project in December 2013. By May 2013 GlassPoint was exceeding contracted performance targets by 10%. In December 2013 the system was generating an average of 50 tons of steam per day with a success rate boasting 98.6% uptime and an average steam output that is 80% steam vapor and 20% water. At the end of January, just two years after it broke ground, the project was producing enough steam to replace 1 MMcm (36 MMcf) of natural gas.

Forecast calls for sunshine

Daniel Palmer, GlassPoint’s vice president of sales, said what’s important to his clients is that the technology makes sense for countries such as Oman and areas such as the Middle East that are seeking solar solutions for their energy needs.

What is often referred to as the “easy oil” in the Middle East is now mostly gone. What remains is the hard-to-reach heavy oil. These assets require thermal EOR and high-pressure steam injection to produce them. Powering this steam generation with vast amounts of natural gas has been the EOR method most commonly used. But while heavy oil is abundant in Oman, natural gas is not.

Due to the shortage of natural gas in the Middle East, the price for it has skyrocketed. Palmer said that with GlassPoint’s solar EOR technology, natural gas is only needed to make up for the loss of sunshine. This significantly reduces the amount of natural gas needed to recover oil and gas from Oman’s rich reserves, he said.
Rod MacGregor, CEO of GlassPoint, said in a video interview that there are three economic criteria that must be met before deciding whether solar EOR is an appropriate solution:
“For [solar] EOR you need [abundant] sunshine – Oman has some of the best in the world. You need heavy oil – Oman is the leader in heavy oil production in the Middle East. And you need scarcity of an abundant fuel supply [such as natural gas]. Oman has all three of those things, making it the ideal location,” he said.
If the project meets MacGregor’s three criteria, Palmer said GlassPoint will be able to offer its solution at a competitive price. “Our goal is always to be more economical than natural gas,” he said.

He added that like most renewable energy technology, after operators put up the initial capital to purchase a solar EOR system, the system will pay for itself over time.
“Once they’re running, they’re good to go,” he said, referring to the solar steam generators and overall system.

Lean and clean

Part of what makes GlassPoint’s solar EOR system unique is its glass and steel housing that keeps out the wind, humidity, sand, and grit that would otherwise impair the movement and sturdiness of the sun-tracking mirrors and components. There are no solar panels used. Instead, the mirrors sit upon a single-axis system that positions them to track the optimum amount of sunlight. That sunlight is then focused on stationary boiler tubes containing water waiting to be heated to the point where they can produce steam for thermal EOR.

Palmer said the GlassPoint system integrates perfectly with the existing equipment and uses the same type of feedwater needed for traditional gas-fired steam generators. It was designed this way to save money and account for the overnight hours when solar energy cannot be harvested and natural gas is required to maintain steam production.

The large glass houses that protect the solar components are not only aerodynamic and made to withstand peak-wind force, but they are readily available to the market as mass-produced greenhouses. Not having to custom-design and build the glass housing from scratch also helps keep the cost down, Palmer said.
He added that mass-produced robots designed to clean greenhouse rooftops are handy, too, especially in desert environments.

“The dust levels are extremely high in Oman,” he said. “You have to wash your car every day. We’d see a 3% drop in output if we didn’t have the robots cleaning the glass overnight.”

The robots help ensure the sunlight has unrestricted access to the solar mechanics inside the housing to produce steam at a consistent 312°C (594°F).

Another big cost savings comes from the curved mirrors used in the solar EOR operations, Palmer said. Because the mirrors are protected from the harsh elements, they are thinner and lighter, saving on transportation and maintenance costs. Keeping all of the mirrors and solar components in a glass house that is filled with dehumidified and filtered air keeps them clean and operating at peak performance, Palmer added.

Crew safety is another advantage to the solar EOR system, Palmer said, adding that throughout the yearlong building and testing of the pilot project in Oman there were no lost-time injuries.

“We can build the whole thing with no working from height,” he said.

The entire solar EOR operation is fully automated. No one need enter the glass houses or try to keep the housing clean, he said.

Moving ‘full steam ahead’

In a May 21, 2013, press release, Dr. Syham Bentouati, head of New Technology Implementation at PDO, said “preliminary results from this project demonstrate that solar steam generated with GlassPoint’s enclosed trough architecture is equally as effective as natural gas for thermal EOR.

“This unit serves as a performance and operational baseline for future solar-steam generation projects in Oman,” she added, “providing us with valuable information for planning potential future large-scale solar-steam projects.”

Laura Atkins, executive director of upstream research at Hart Energy, noted in a Jan. 8, 2014, press release that heavy oil “will play a significant role in the global energy mix of the future.” Since most of that oil will require steam injection for production, she said, GlassPoint’s solar EOR technology and its ability to reduce natural gas use for EOR by up to 80% will be useful.

“This is a compelling proposition for many oil-producing nations,” she said, “as gas saved can be redirected toward LNG export or put to use by local industry to fuel economic growth.”

In the Middle East, Palmer said, “that makes perfect economic sense.”