By Barbara Saunders It’s often said that nothing is new under the sun, and that both is and isn’t the case for the seemingly ironic “romance” between solar energy, and oil and natural gas operations. Back in the 1970s, Exxon formed a subsidiary called Solar Power Corp., which pioneered the first known large-scale industrial use of photovoltaic (PV), or solar cell, batteries to power emergency and after-dark, lower-watt, passageway lighting on offshore oil and natural gas rigs and platforms. PV technology caught on fast in offshore projects, because the heavy, toxic batteries in formerly used were extremely expensive to purchase and service. In a 2009 Pacific Standard article, John Perlin noted, “Reliability, paramount for safety equipment, made biweekly servicing and frequent replacement of non-rechargeable batteries a necessity. Moving them on and off the platforms was a chore. The batteries were heavy and highly toxic. All the boat trips and helicopter rides out to the platforms to tend the batteries, to bring out and install new ones, and to take old ones back to shore made for a very steep bill, not to mention the high cost of the batteries themselves.” If a sun-charged battery went bad, a replacement cost $160, versus $2,100 for a non-rechargeable battery, Perlin said. Moreover, the entire photovoltaic-powered system could be transported by a small standby skiff, while moving a non-rechargeable battery by a crane boat cost a walloping $3,500 per day. “With such advantages, the oil and gas industry rapidly took to photovoltaics as the replacement,” Perlin noted. Onshore, the sun is now brightening EOR operations the world over, with Chevron and Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) leading the way in large-scale technology demos, while Berry Petroleum is already up and running with commercial, solar-powered EOR in Kern County, Calif. Solar-powered EOR operations are a particular boon in more remote parts of the world, where there’s little or no nearby pipeline access to natural gas, or really anywhere that gas is needed critically for other applications, such as primary electric power generation. Solar-powered equipment is part of the global market for EOR technologies, which was already $4.7 billion in 2009, according to a BCC Research report. This market is expected to reach $16.3 billion in 2014. Underscoring how intensely the solar-powered EOR market is heating up, Glass Point Solar, a major technology developer for EOR applications, closed a round of funding totaling $26 million through Royal Dutch Shell, RockPort Capital, Nth Power, and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital in December 2012. The project will reduce the amount of natural gas burned for thermal EOR, releasing gas for higher value applications, including power generation, desalination, industrial development, and export. Last year’s other sunny rays in the EOR market included the Chevron Technology Ventures launch of a 29-MW, solar-powered EOR demo using BrightSource technology. An astounding array of 7,644 mirrors focus the sun’s energy onto a solar boiler to generate steam, which is next injected into Chevron’s oil reservoirs to near Coalinga, Calif. The project is the largest of its kind in the world and will supplement the gas-fired steam generators to help determine the commercial viability of using heat from the sun instead of natural gas to generate steam. Another “hot” project last year was the first commercial solar-powered EOR project at Berry Petroleum’s 21Z lease in Kern County. Built in less than six weeks last year by Glass Point Solar, the system spans 198. 3 sq m (7,000 sq ft) of land in the century-old oilfield and uses the sun’s radiant heat to produce approximately 1 million Btus per hour of solar heat. An enclosed trough preheats water to 88°C (190°F), which is used as feedwater for Berry’s gas-fired steam generators.
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