A solar greenhouse arises among the sand dunes

On a small plot of land amid the barren sand dunes of the Arab state of Oman, you’ll find rows of glass houses containing six-meter high curved mirrors. Some day before the end of this month, the mirrors will start focusing the area’s abundant sunlight and begin putting it to work generating steam that will go to a nearby oil field and boost its production.

GlassPoint 1

The 7 MW pilot project is built by Fremont, Calif-based GlassPoint Solar, and will be crucial for the four-year-old GlassPoint to validate its concentrating solar thermal technology, says Rod MacGregor, CEO of GlassPoint Solar.

The company is building the project for Petroleum Development Oman, which is a joint venture between the government of Oman, Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Partex. On Tuesday GlassPoint plans to announce a $26 million round of investment from Shell, RockPort Capital, Nth Power and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital.

The project is only the second for GlassPoint, which built a 300 KW system for Berry Petroleum in central California in early 2011. But the Middle East is where GlassPoint wants to be. It’s the mother lode of oil production and where natural gas, which has historically been used to produce steam for oil extraction, remains expensive. Natural gas in the U.S., on the other hand, is too cheap right now to make solar steam production an attractive option, MacGregor said.

GlassPoint set out to design equipment for producing steam that is then injected by high pressure into the ground to loosen and thin the sticky oil in rock fissures. The use of steam to recover more oil from the field isn’t a new concept, but using solar energy to produce steam is a more novel approach. Many companies that are developing similar solar thermal equipment for electricity generation also are targeting the oil recovery operation. BrightSource Energy, for example, built a 29 MW project at a Chevron oil field in California last year.

GlassPoint 2

GlassPoint’s solar steam equipment uses steel mirrors to concentrate the sunlight onto water-containing steel pipes to produce steam. The set up is similar to the equipment used by much bigger rivals such as Abengoa Solar and Areva. What sets GlassPoint’s design apart is the glass structure that seals each row of mirrors and pipes and protects the equipment from strong wind, sand, dust and humidity. Those same conditions present challenges to any kind of solar steam or electricity generation equipment and require more frequent cleaning.

MacGregor compares his company’s equipment design to that of a greenhouse. Growers “try to get as much light into a greenhouse while protecting the plants from the environment. That’s similar to what we do,” he said.

In addition to the glass shield, GlassPoint’s technology is designed to use low-quality water that likely contains crud from the oil field.  In comparison, solar steam equipment from rivals typically requires very pure water to run, or else their pipes will be clogged by the crud, MacGregor said. Eliminating the need to treat water saves costs.

MacGregor declined to disclose the cost of building the Oman project, which can produce, on average, 50 tons of steam per day. The company contracts with factories to produce the various components for its solar steam equipment. MacGregor plans to use the new round of funding to hire more engineers and people to work on finances and government relations.