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Sunshine for enhanced oil recovery

All but gone are the days when ultra-heavy industries can gather resources with impunity. Now, with fossil fuels declining the unconventional heavy oils must be targeted to feed an ever energy hungry world economy. However, using precious energy to release energy is an expensive and environmentally-unfriendly way to go about things. As Ian McInnes discovers, innovators are employing new, out-of-the-box efficiency technologies to get the heavy oil flowing.

In early August 2011, Fremont, California-based GlassPoint Solar Inc announced that it had won a contract to build the first solar enhanced oil recovery pilot in the Gulf region. The new 7MW solar enhanced oil recovery (EOR) system is for Oman’s national and mostly state-owned Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the largest producer of oil and gas in the sultanate. PDO says that it will use GlassPoint’s system for an existing EOR project in southern Oman with the technology ideally being used to reduce the amount of natural gas that has to be burned for thermal EOR so that gas can be used elsewhere on higher value applications such as, power generation, desalination, industrial development and export. “After extensively researching solar EOR solutions, we’ve identified GlassPoint as the most promising technology for this pilot,” said Dr Syham Bentouati, PDO corporate technology advisor in a statement. “GlassPoint’s solar steam generators have the potential to release valuable natural gas for use in higher‐value applications within the Sultanate.”

GlassPoint says that the solar EOR facility will use concentrated thermal energy from the sun to produce, “Low‐cost, emission‐free steam that will be fed directly into PDO’s existing steam distribution network.” The system, spanning more than four acres, will produce 11t of high-pressure steam at a temperature of 312°C/h. According to GlassPoint, the Oman solar EOR will be 27 times larger than the facility that the company installed at Berry Petroleum’s (Berry) 21Z oil field in Kern County, California. The Oman system will be built, says GlassPoint to specifically cope with the harsh environmental conditions of the Gulf region using lightweight reflective mirrors inside a glasshouse structure to protect the system from dirt, dust, sand and humidity. Rod MacGregor, GlassPoint’s CEO and president said that PDO was the prominent leader in EOR techniques in the region and confirmed that, “As part of our commitment to maintain a long‐term presence in the Sultanate we have established a local company that will hire Omani professionals and help spread knowledge of state‐of‐the‐art solar technology throughout the Sultanate.” GlassPoint says that in sunny regions, and that certainly includes the Gulf region and much, if not all, of the Middle East, that its solution can reduce the amount of natural gas for EOR by up to 80%.

On the road to many more ?

Middle Eastern natural gas assets are a mixture of feast and famine in terms of availability ranging from abundance to virtually none at all. GlassPoint’s technology, if the Oman project works out well, could set it on the road to many more. The company points out that steamflooding is both well proven and an effective technique with the major flaw to the technique being the amount of natural gas that is required to produce the steam. GlassPoint also says that Oman’s rapid industrial development over the last 20 years or so has diverted the nation’s natural gas reserves to power higher-value applications and that using solar systems for EOR would allow the natural gas to be used where it is most needed. “Over time, the light oil at the top of fields gets used up, so ultimately everyone will be producing heavier and heavier oil,” Macgregor said to a reporter from Bloomberg. “Oil producers will need steam from somewhere, so they can either burn gas, which many lack, or they can use solar energy.”

GlassPoint says that its application of its single transit tough (STT) technology combines the proven technologies that are already widely available with lightweight, low-cost components and the company says that its STT system generates over five times the amount of steam per acre than the older power tower designs. It is early days however, and GlassPoint’s Oman contract is only the second one. The first was announced in February 2011 and the first commercial EOR project, the company claims. GlassPoint says that the EOR at Berry’s lease in California was specifically constructed for rugged oilfield environments and was built in less than six weeks. “Solar steam has the potential to expand local employment and local capital assets and enhance domestic oil production,” said US Representative Kevin McCarthy, congressman for California’s 22nd congressional district in a statement.

Significant potential

While oil reserves in the Middle East are still relatively abundant much of it is heavy oil, which is notoriously difficult to pump. And, as the easy light oil depletes, increasingly steamflooding and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) techniques are being employed to release the vast reserves of heavy oil that lie beneath the deserts. Oman in particular has often been off the heavy oil radar in favour of Canada and Venezuela but in fact has been using steam EOR techniques for some time and is reportedly, the number one user of steam technology in the region. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Bahrain, India, Iraq and Iran are all either using steam techniques to release heavy oil already or are moving towards it. Given that in all these nations the hours of sunlight are considerable, the market for the application of solar systems for EOR or even applying mainstream steam technologies to heavy oil reservoirs would appear to be considerable. It is also refreshing that a renewable technology can be used to extract fossil fuels rather than use so much natural gas. It will also be interesting to see how the California and Oman projects work out. If they are a success, then GlassPoint, which has offices in Bakersfield, California, Muscat, Oman and Shenzhen, China may have more work than it can handle in its current form.

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