Born out of Silicon Valley, California, a global epicentre of innovation and technology, GlassPoint Solar is one of the pioneers in solar-powered oil production. The company is behind some of the world’s largest solar energy projects, which are helping progressive oil producers reduce emissions and improve oilfield economics. GlassPoint’s solar thermal technology was designed to harness the sun’s energy to generate steam, required to produce heavy, viscous oil via thermal enhanced oil recovery (EOR).
GlassPoint’s enclosed trough technology does not produce electricity; instead, it uses large, curved mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a boiler tube containing water. The concentrated sunlight, rather than fuel, boils the water to produce high-pressured steam, which is injected into an oil reservoir to heat heavy oil and boost production. GlassPoint’s system deploys many of the same components and controls operators are familiar with, which eases integration and improves the system’s overall cost efficiency.
What makes its technology so cost-effective is the use of an agriculture greenhouse to enclose its mirrors, shielding them from wind, sand, and dust common in desert oilfields. This novel concept has been successfully deployed in Oman since 2012 and is now operating at commercial-scale with the development of the Miraah solar plant in collaboration with Petroleum Development Oman (PDO).
GlassPoint built its first project in California back in 2011 and has since attracted global energy partners and strategic investors including Royal Dutch Shell, Aera Energy, and the State General Reserve Fund of Oman, the country’s largest sovereign wealth fund.
GlassPoint Solar’s recently appointed CEO, Steven Moss, who joined the firm in March and possesses an extensive background in the energy and aerospace sectors reveals: “Since breaking ground in 2015, we have watched Miraah quickly come to life. The facility began delivering steam in late 2017 and is now in daily operations meeting PDO’s demand for solar steam each day. So far, we have successfully completed four greenhouse blocks, which were built safely, on schedule and on budget.”
The company is on track to deliver additional greenhouse blocks early next year and has so far achieved more than 2.5mn safe man-hours without a lost time incident. The four operating blocks have a total capacity of over 100 thermal megawatts, enough to produce 660 tonnes of solar steam per day. Once complete, the one-gigawatt installation will consist of 36 blocks, built in a sequence, which will allow PDO to gradually ramp up production over time to meet the Amal oilfield’s steam demand.
“As we bring more Miraah blocks online and plan for future projects in the region, we continue to move down the cost curve. We built the first four blocks of Miraah at a cost saving of over 55% compared to the cost of building the pilot in 2012. In addition to economies of scale and construction efficiencies, we’re developing and trailing next-generation materials that will further simplify the design and reduce materials, which ultimately lead to additional savings,” Moss adds.
Expanding on its operations in Oman, GlassPoint recently partnered with Aera Energy to build the largest solar plant in California. Using solar steam and solar electricity to power Aera’s oilfield operations, the plant is expected to save more than 376,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year - offsetting the equivalent of 80,000 cars.
GlassPoint has also had a presence in Kuwait since 2014, which stands to be one of the largest markets for its solar oilfield projects. Kuwait’s Ministry of Electricity and Water stated earlier this year that the country is determined to produce 15% of the Gulf state’s power demand from renewable energy sources, particularly solar, in 12 years. GlassPoint hopes its technologies can assist in this aspiration.
The Kuwait Oil Company is currently developing the first phase of Ratqa Lower Fars, a notable heavy oil project. It is hoped Ratqa will come online later this year, with an increasing demand for steam needed to meet its heavy oil target of 270,000 barrels per day by 2030. Moss points out that the natural gas needed to produce the steam for Ratqa’s planned thermal EOR operations would constitute around 25% of the country’s entire current gas production and so imports would theoretically need to spike enormously to support this venture.
But Moss backs GlassPoint‘s efficient solar technology expertise to undercut the potential import costs, therefore not only saving significant sums of money in the future but helping to tap into the over-arching strategy of utilising innovative renewable energy sources.
GlassPoint bases much of its regional foothold to PDO’s “forward thinking” and equally the support of Oman’s Ministry of Oil and Gas, with regard to the fact a renewable energy sector has emanated from its long history in hydrocarbon production.
Moss comments, “Oman was the pioneer in deploying solar for oil production. Based on our close collaboration over the years, we are looking at how we can deploy our technology to power other oil and gas processes and industrial applications, such as seawater desalination. This will contribute to the sultanate’s economic diversification strategy while saving valuable natural gas needed to meet increasing domestic demand or expand the country’s future liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.”
PDO and GlassPoint have worked hard to develop Oman’s solar industry as part of their shared commitment to In-Country Value. The project has generated new jobs and expertise in solar technology innovation, project deployment and manufacturing.
At Miraah’s official inauguration in February, Oman’s Undersecretary of the Ministry of Oil and Gas Salim bin Nasser Al Aufi, emphasised how the project has contributed to developing local Omani talent in the renewable energy field and created job opportunities for local companies. It is hoped that down the line, the skills and knowledge developed can be transposed to other parts of the world.
Since breaking ground at Miraah, GlassPoint has been working to qualify Omani suppliers for elements of the project. Most recently, it partnered with the National Aluminium Products Company, Oman’s largest aluminium provider, to supply the large curved structures that support its mirrors.
Moss explains, “We are increasingly looking for opportunities to build national capacities and maximise the project’s supply and manufacturing in Oman. As we expand in the region, these Omani-made materials could be exported for use in future projects throughout the Gulf.”
To accelerate its efforts in developing a renewables hub, the company recently launched the GlassPoint Innovation Spur. This intensive full-cycle incubation programme will provide aspiring Omani innovators with scientific, technical and business support, in addition to linking to potential investors. GlassPoint goal is to encourage a culture of innovation among local talent and advance sustainable solutions in Oman.
Oil industry experts agree that much of the ‘easy oil’ has already been tapped over the years and what remains often requires innovative extraction techniques. GlassPoint firmly expects the use of steam injection to significantly increase in coming years. At the same time, current oil prices and rising gas demand across multiple sectors, including oil recovery, is adding pressure on oil companies to identify stable and affordable fuel alternatives.
Moss concludes, “Burning one precious commodity to produce another precious commodity is inefficient when it can be used for higher value applications. At GlassPoint, we provide a zero-emissions alternative to produce this steam from sunshine rather than burning natural gas. The use of solar-powered oil production will help Oman and other countries reduce the cost and environmental footprint of heavy oil extraction for decades, driving us forward into a new era of energy convergence.”