The oil industry is using solar power in an ironic new way

Trapping the sun to untrap oil.
Trapping the sun to untrap oil.
Image: GlassPoint
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This post has been updated.

There’s a huge project taking shape in the deserts of Oman. It will extract crude oil from the ground by pumping vast quantities of steam into it. To produce the steam, water will be brought to a boil using as much as a gigawatt of energy. The source of that energy: the sun.

Using solar power to get fossil fuels out of the ground will strike some as ironic—especially since, if that method weren’t available, the high cost of extracting the oil might lead to more pressure to use cleaner energy sources, such as solar, instead.

Impression of the Miraah project.
Impression of the Miraah project.
Image: GlassPoint/Youtube

But GlassPoint, the American company behind the new technology, says that the project and others like it will help fossil-fuel drillers limit carbon emissions. The process of “enhanced oil recovery,” where steam is used to loosen thick oil and make it easier to pump, usually involves burning natural gas to heat water. GlassPoint says its technology can cut that gas consumption, and the consequent carbon emissions, by up to 80%.

Work began in November 2015 on the Oman project, called Miraah, which will eventually be one of the largest solar thermal plants in the world (a smaller pilot scheme has been in place there since 2012). Large, thin, curved mirrors are used to concentrate the sun’s rays onto tubes containing water. The mirrors—enclosed in greenhouses (see top image) to protect them from dust and other harsh conditions—move to track the sun’s progress through the sky. The company has already deployed its technology at an oilfield in its native state, California.

Funding comes from Petroleum Development Oman, the largest oil producer in the sultanate. GlassPoint also has investment from Royal Dutch Shell and Total, as well as venture capital. The region is increasingly capitalizing on its reliable sunshine and large open spaces to produce power from the sun—though up to now it’s usually been in order to generate electricity, not more oil.

Update (Feb. 19): The headline of this post has been updated to reflect the fact that the inventor of the technology is not itself an oil company.