As the era of easily accessible crude oil is coming to an end, Middle Eastern oil and gas producers are now focusing on developing unconventional resources to maintain current production output and meet the always-increasing demand for energy.

To produce more heavy oil, Oman and Kuwait are increasingly adopting Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) techniques to facilitate heavy oil extraction and boost well productivity by up to 300%. These methods include gas and chemical injection, as well as thermal recovery.

Heavy crude oil is characterized by high viscosity that makes it quite similar in texture to tar, and has traditionally been hard for oil operators to produce.

For thermal EOR, oil companies worldwide burn two quadrillion British thermal units of gas yearly—the equivalent of 25% of all traded LNG—to fuel EOR operations.

So far, the most common EOR method deployed today is thermal EOR. This process injects steam into the ground, so that oil operators can heat the rock formations surrounding the reservoir to reduce the oil’s viscosity and facilitate extraction. To produce the steam necessary for EOR, oil companies burn enormous quantities of natural gas, which is a scarce and expensive commodity in many countries in the region.

In geographies where natural gas is scarce, like Oman and Kuwait, burning gas for EOR means less gas for power generation, industrial development or export.

With gas becoming increasingly constrained and expensive to produce throughout the Gulf region, it is imperative that governments and national oil companies consider the impact of steam generation for EOR on a country’s long-term economic growth.

The basic idea with thermal EOR is to heat the reservoir and keep it heated for several decades. The reservoir itself acts as a natural storage solution, which means the steam can be injected at varying rates depending on the time of day and what makes most sense economically.

This is why solar energy is ideal for thermal EOR. Producers can chose to steam more during the day, when it’s sunny out, and less at night with fuel-fired steam. Research conducted by Petroleum Development of Oman (PDO) on variable rate steaming found that solar steam could supply up to 80% of an oilfield’s steam needs, significantly reducing natural gas consumption at the oilfield and resulting emissions.

California-based firm, GlassPoint Solar Inc., partnered with PDO to build the Middle East’s first pilot solar EOR project. GlassPoint has developed two of the three solar EOR projects in the world.

In 2013, GlassPoint commissioned the Middle East’s first solar EOR project, a 7 megawatt (MW) thermal system in southern Oman. Developed at PDO’s Amal West oilfield, the system has been operating successfully since December 2012.

In its first year of operations, GlassPoint said that the pilot exceeded all performance targets for steam production, automation and reliability. The pilot demonstrated that solar steam is a viable source for thermal EOR operations and a proven alternative to gas-fired steam generation.

“The system recorded a 98.6% uptime and continues to exceed to be over 99%. Even during severe dust and sandstorms, the system has proven to maintain regular operations,” GlassPoint said. “The project continues to produce an average of 50 tons of emissions-free steam each day and serves as a blueprint for large-scale solar EOR projects under discussion throughout the Gulf region.”

GlassPoint’s solar EOR systems enclose mirrors in a standard agricultural glasshouse, which protects them from the dust, wind and humidity typical of harsh oilfield environments.

“By protecting the array from harsh desert conditions, GlassPoint can use lightweight and inexpensive components, which significantly reduce the high capital costs normally associated with solar steam,” GlassPoint said.

Curved mirrors track the sun throughout the day, focusing sunlight on a stationary boiler tube containing standard boiler-quality feed water. The concentrated sunlight heats the water to produce high-pressure steam, which is then injected into the well. The glasshouse is cleaned using an automated washing system, which maintains optical efficiency, recycles 90% of water used and eliminates manual cleaning costs.

The glasshouse enclosure is particularly important in the Gulf’s desert oilfields. “For example, if you look at Kuwait, which averages more than 20 dust storms each year. This is where GlassPoint’s enclosed trough technology holds a significant advantage over exposed solar technologies, which would require consistent manual cleaning or realize significant drops in performance,” GlassPoint added.

“GlassPoint’s pilot project for PDO, which produces steam for oil production, has been operating successfully for more than four years. During this time, we worked closely with our partners at PDO to enhance the technology for oilfield deployment and improve overall cost efficiency as we scale by a factor of 100,” Ben Bierman, GlassPoint COO and acting CEO, said.

Following the pilot project, GlassPoint recently concluded construction of the first block of its Miraah solar plant, located at the Amal oilfield operated by PDO.

“Our work was completed safely, on schedule and on budget, and we began producing steam in early September. We are now working alongside our partners at PDO on integrating the plant with the Amal steam network,” the company said in a statement.

Upon completion, Miraah will be among the world’s largest solar plants, delivering 1,021 MW of peak thermal energy and generating 6,000 tonnes of steam per day. The natural gas saved through the use of the technology at the Amal oilfield can be exported or directed towards high-value applications, such as power generation or industrial development, providing a major opportunity to diversify the local economy.

Construction of Miraah’s remaining 35 blocks is progressing on schedule. “We look forward to sharing more updates from the Amal oilfield soon,” the company said.