Today the state oil company of Oman announced a landmark deal with California-based solar developer GlassPoint to build the world’s largest solar project. Named Miraah, the $600 million installation will cover 750 acres of desert with glass houses inside which long sheets of aluminum will catch sun rays and concentrate the energy to produce steam. The facility’s peak output will be in excess of 1,000 megawatts. Just how big is that? By comparison, the largest currently operating solar farms, built by First Solar FSLR -4.14% in California, have nameplate capacity of 550 mw.
What use does a Middle Eastern oil giant have for solar power? Well many of the fields operated by Petroleum Development Oman, or PDO, contain heavy oil. Loosening up that oil and getting it to flow requires the injection of massive amounts of steam. PDO currently burns natural gas to generate that steam, but with gas reserves depleting, that’s not sustainable. After three years of study, PDO (which produces more than 1.25 million bbl per day) has determined that solar power is a more economic method.
The Miraah project will produce 6,000 tons of steam per day, enough to coax out about 35,000 barrels per day of heavy oil in the Amal field. Over the course of a year the solar collectors will displace about 5.6 trillion BTU of natural gas — that’s enough to provide electricity for more than 200,000 Omanis. “This opens up the opportunity for Oman to use its natural gas for higher-value applications, to diversify its economy and create more jobs,” says John O’Donnell, v.p. of GlassPoint, in an interview today.
Will Miraah really be able to claim the title of world’s biggest solar installation? After all, its solar collectors are turning the sun’s energy into steam, not electricity like those big California solar farms. O’Donnell says there’s really no distinction. “A watt is a watt whether it’s in the form of electricity or in heat.”
PDO has tested numerous solar steam systems over the past five years, and GlassPoint built a pilot plant there in 2012. The San Francisco-based company’s technology won out for the Miraah project because of its simplicity and reliability. From afar, the system looks like row after row of agricultural greenhouses — but instead of tomato plants the houses are filled with flimsy mirrors — little more than curved sheets of aluminum foil, suspended by wires from the ceiling. As the sun moves across the sky, small motors pull the wires to adjust the mirrors’ pitch. The reflected rays are concentrated on a network of pipes carrying water. (For more on the company, check out my 2011 Forbes Magazine story, or this post.)
Plenty of other solar developers have tried other methods to generate steam. BrightSource built a 100-acre steam generating system for Chevron CVX -1.79% in California, which focused the light from free-standing mirrors onto a 300-foot-tall water tower. But that method doesn’t work as well in Oman, where strong winds regularly cover everything with sand that would scratch such mirrors.
Automated brushes clean GlassPoint’s houses after the sun goes down, and because they protect what’s inside from the elements the mirrors and motors are much lighter and cheaper than other solar reflecting systems. “We put a lot of effort into the pilots,” says Raoul Restucci, managing director of PDO, in a phone interview today. “And we found the GlassPoint technology is incredibly simple and it works incredibly well.”
GlassPoint built another pilot plant in a California heavy oil field in 2010 for Berry Petroleum, since acquired by Linn Energy. O’Donnell says the subsequent shale gas supply surge made solar steam uneconomic in California, but that could soon change with California planning to overhaul its Renewable Fuel Standards to better incentivize such carbon-saving projects. The Miraah installation is expected to displace enough natgas to save 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, the equivalent of taking 60,000 cars off the road.
Once completed in 2017, the Miraah solar installation may be the biggest in the world, but it will be only the beginning for Oman’s solar initiative. PDO will need to double Miraah just to supply 100% of the steam needed for the Amal field. After that, there’s more than 20 other fields in Oman that also employ steam for enhanced oil recovery. Oman’s neighbors are interested too. GlassPoint has been in discussions with the oil companies of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And the global supermajors are watching; though Petroleum Development Oman is 60% owned by the Sultanate, Royal Dutch Shell holds about 30% of the equity in PDO and is also an investor in GlassPoint.
Just don’t expect GlassPoint to get the love it deserves from the anti-oil greenies who must be aghast that their beloved solar power could find an economic application in helping to produce more oil. “Solar is only going to achieve large scale if the economics work,” says O’Donnell. “A lot of people who like to point fingers just can’t count.”
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