GlassPoint Oman

A GlassPoint project in Oman that uses solar energy to get more oil out of the ground has come online on schedule and on budget, brightening the outlook for the technology’s broader use in the Middle East.

Oman’s state-controlled oil company, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), awarded GlassPoint a contract to build a seven megawatt (MW) solar enhanced oil recovery (EOR) system at an existing thermal EOR project at its Amal West field in southern Oman in 2011. EOR involves the injection of steam, carbon dioxide or other substances into oil reservoirs to increase the amount of oil extracted.

GlassPoint completed construction of the system – the Middle East’s first solar EOR facility – in December. It produces about 50 tons of steam per day.

“The GlassPoint system is proving it can reliably fuel thermal EOR with solar power while reducing the need to burn natural gas,” said PDO Managing Director Raoul Restucci in a statement. By using solar power to generate steam, PDO frees up natural gas for use in power generation, desalination, or other applications, and cuts back on emissions from the drilling process.

PDO had been wary of commenting on the project, but months of reliable performance appear to have built up sufficient confidence for the company to declare it a success, GlassPoint Chief Executive Rod MacGregor told Breaking Energy. “It’s quite a sea change in terms of publicly talking about the project,” he said.

Logistical Nightmare

GlassPoint completed its first commercial solar EOR project in Kern County, California in 2011. It was completed in six weeks.

The Oman project was significantly more complex. In addition to being 27 times bigger than the Kern County facility, the remoteness of the field location added a number of logistical challenges to the construction process.

“This oil field is literally in the middle of nowhere,” MacGregor said. All necessary materials had to be trucked out to the field, as well as employees, employee housing, etc. “The logistics of that are very challenging.”

The quality of the sand was also a hurdle, MacGregor said. “It’s almost like talcum powder. All horizontal surfaces are covered in this fine dust, and for solar that’s a huge issue.” GlassPoint’s solar EOR systems are specifically designed for conditions like those in Oman, with panels housed in a glass enclosure that protects them from build-up and damage.

For more coverage of GlassPoint Solar’s technology, see: The Solar Powered Oil Rig.

Engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) of the facility fulfilled GlassPoint’s first contract with PDO. The second contract is to operate the 7 MW pilot for 12 months, during which time PDO will gather data and decide whether or not to move ahead with full-field development. “That will be the end of the year, maybe next year,” MacGregor said.

But the pilot’s success has sparked the interest of other operators in the region executing projects with the three necessary components for solar EOR: heavy oil, lots of sunlight, and an economic incentive to use solar instead of gas, or other fuels. The questions of whether GlassPoint can actually execute the project, and whether it will work, “have now vanished from people’s minds”, MacGregor said.

GlassPoint is talking to various international and national oil companies in the region about potential new projects.  “Of the countries in the Gulf, only Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait are producing heavy oil,” said MacGregor. But as “easy” oil reserves dwindle over time, “other countries will eventually start producing their heavy oil assets”, he said.

Breaking Energy recently visited Abu Dhabi, UAE, for the Shams 1 concentrated solar plant inauguration, built by government-owned company Masdar and its international partners. Project representatives stated interest in using the technology for EOR. Read more about Shams 1 here.

Opportunities Further Afield

Outside of the Middle East, some areas of China, Africa, and South America hold promise for solar EOR. MacGregor noted that some areas of western China have both heavy oil and good sunshine, and parts of Venezuela and East Africa offer that combination of characteristics, as well.

But the low price of natural gas effectively prices solar EOR out of the US market, at least for the time being. “I don’t think we’ll see a US project for a while,” MacGregor said.

Gas has “really got to get to $5 or more for our system to make economic sense”, he said.

For more on solar EOR, see Oil Majors Seek Power of the Sun, The Geographic Realities of Abundant Sunlight, and The Solar Powered Oil Rig.