A California startup’s technology puts solar steam to work in a Middle East oil field

A solar project that looks like rows of glass greenhouse is now producing steam to help pry loose stubborn heavy crude oil from rock fissures underground in Oman, said venture-backed GlassPoint Solar, which announced the commissioning of the project on Tuesday.

The solar steam generation plant is the first in the Middle East and one of the few in the world built for oil extraction. GlassPoint, based in Fremont, Calif., built the project for Petroleum Development Oman, which is majority owned by the government of Oman and whose investors also include the Shell Group, Total and Partex.

Harnessing solar energy to help with oil extraction is a relatively novel phenomenon. The solar steam replaces steam that would otherwise be produced by burning natural gas, which is much more expensive in the Middle East. Oil producing companies and countries prefer to use natural gas for other industrial operations, such as power generation and desalination, MacGregor said.

Using solar energy also helps oil field operations to shrink their carbon footprint, if they run into regulations that require them to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Many solar companies are pursuing this type of opportunities when they are looking beyond the electricity generation market.

GlassPoint built a smaller and its first project for Berry Petroleum in California’s Kern County two years ago. BrightSource Energy built a 29MW project at a Chevron oil field just north of GlassPoint’s project. I took a road trip to check out BrightSource’s project last year and was impressed by the field of mirrors and the tower where the boiler for heating water and generating steam by sunlight is located (check out my road trip report and photo slides).

At 7MW, the plant in Oman is a pilot scale. GlassPoint began building the project in the Amal West field in January 2012 and completed it in December. The project on average produces 50 tons of steam daily, a fraction of what the oil field needs (see video). A recent performance testing showed that the project was producing 10 percent more steam than it promised in the contract. I first caught up with GlassPoint’s CEO, Rod MacGregor, about the project last December.

The completion of the project also coincided with the company’s announcement  that it had raised a B round of $26 million last December. Royal Dutch Shell is one of the new investors. Others included RockPort Capital and Nth Power, with Chrysalix Energy Ventures Capital as a returned investor.

With the new money and project to show for, GlassPoint hopes to attract new customers in the oil business. The company has a contract to operate the solar steam field for Oman’s oil company for a year, after which the oil company will decide whether to expand the solar steam field and hire GlassPoint for the job, MacGregor said.

GlassPoint has designed its technology specifically for oil extraction. It uses parabolic mirrors to concentrate the sunlight to heat water for generating steam at 312 degrees Celsius. The company enclosed the equipment with glass housing in order to protect the mirrors from dust, humidity and strong wind. Dust — fine and sticky in the Middle East — presents a headache for solar energy developers, who have to figure out an economic way to clean the equipment.

The glass housing does need washing, and GlassPoint designed a cleaning system in which its gutters catch the water rolling down from the top. It’s able to recycle 80 percent of the water used, MacGregor said.