Greenhouse solar plant for cheaper extraction of oil

March 2, 2011 by Lin Edwards report

( -- A Californian company has found a way to reduce the cost of making steam for use in extracting oil from old oil fields: they heat the water using free sunlight.

The new demonstration solar thermal steam plant at McKittrick in California uses sunlight concentrated by mirrors in a greenhouse to pre-heat water. is then used to boil the hot water to produce steam to heat the rock in the old oil field in order to scour out more oil and melt the thicker and heavier oils and extract them. In a full-scale plant the mirrors could be used to produce the steam, but in the pilot the wellhead is too far away from the greenhouse for piping the steam to be practical.

Vice president of business development at GlassPoint Solar, John O’Donnell, explained that producing steam is the largest cost in thermal extraction of oil. He said that with the solar assistance they can get 10-20 percent more oil from the same well because the cheaper steam means you can run the extraction longer.

The video will load shortly.

The demonstration plant covers an area of 650 square meters among the derricks of the oil field, which is owned by the Berry Petroleum Company. The plant consists of a greenhouse with a crenellated roof to maximize the exposure to sunlight. Two rows of seven-meter-wide mirrors are suspended from the top of the greenhouse and concentrate the sunlight onto tubes containing the water. The mirrors generate about a million British thermal units (BTUs) of heat each hour. The amount of steam needed depends on the age of the oil field, but is typically around two million BTUs per barrel of oil.

GlassPoint Solar says the steam can be produced at a cost of $3 to $3.50 per million BTUs, compared to around $4 per million BTUs with natural gas. Costs are also reduced because the greenhouse blocks the wind, which means lighter components can be used than in traditional solar thermal mirror systems (mostly used to make steam to drive generators) and the steel supports are no longer needed.

The greenhouse is at higher pressure than the outside, which prevents dust from collecting on the mirrors. The glass of the is kept clean using conventional automatic water sprayers as used in agricultural greenhouses, and the water is re-used.

A solar thermal power project being built by BrightSource Energy has been under construction since 2009, but the GlassPoint pilot plant took only six weeks to build. O’Donnell said a full scale plant could be built quickly.

Around 40 percent of Californian oil is extracted using steam heated by natural gas, and extraction is the greatest industrial use of natural gas in the state.

Explore further: Egypt's first solar plant to open by year's end

More information:

Related Stories

Egypt's first solar plant to open by year's end

June 14, 2010

Egypt will open its first solar energy plant by the end of this year, electricity and energy minister Hassan Yunis said in a report published on Monday on the ministry's website.

First ever hybrid solar-coal power plant operating

July 12, 2010

( -- The first ever hybrid solar-coal power plant is now operating at Unit 2 of the Cameo Generating Station near Palisade in Colorado. The demonstration project was built by Xcel Energy as part of its new Innovative ...

Abu Dhabi to build 'world's largest' solar plant

June 9, 2010

French oil firm Total and Spain's Abengoa Solar will partner with Abu Dhabi's alternative energy company Masdar to build "the world's largest" concentrated solar power plant, Masdar announced on Wednesday.

Solar power generation around the clock

November 5, 2009

( -- A Californian company, SolarReserve, is developing a solar power system that can store seven hours' worth of solar energy by focusing mirrors onto millions of gallons of molten salt, allowing the plant to ...

Recommended for you

When words, structured data are placed on single canvas

October 22, 2017

If "ugh" is your favorite word to describe entering, amending and correcting data on the rows and columns on spreadsheets you are not alone. Coda, a new name in the document business, feels it's time for a change. This is ...

Enhancing solar power with diatoms

October 20, 2017

Diatoms, a kind of algae that reproduces prodigiously, have been called "the jewels of the sea" for their ability to manipulate light. Now, researchers hope to harness that property to boost solar technology.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 02, 2011
Excellent example of a rube Goldberg machine. They won the prize with this one.

A) Use the free energy of the Sun to heat water. (If the bozos used vacuum tubes they could skip B all together.)

B) Burn natural gas to further heat water.

C) Use the water to extraction you can...burn it...

or they could just...

A) Use vacuum tubes and make electricity directly...
1 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2011
I'm just so happy that we're all saved! That was a close one!
3.5 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2011
Agreed Quantum - I just checked - a barrel of oil has less than 6 million btu's. If they can produce steam at $3.50 per mbtu, that would be about $20 per barrell equilevant. It would seem to make a lot more sense to use the steam to generate electricity.
5 / 5 (3) Mar 03, 2011
I think you're missing the point: Oil is an energy carrier that can be transported and stored easily/indefinitely. Electricity/heat can't. (and oil can be stored better/more efficiently than gas)

I love clean energy as much as anyone on the planet, but oil DOES have some advantages for specific applications where indefinite storage is needed (which basically means any application where usage must be independent of generation capacity over short periods of time)

This is why the battery/storage topic is a far hotter area of research in the alternative energy sector thna the generation of the energy itself. Until that is solved (or at least until there are satisfactory/cheap enough methods available) alternative energy will have a hard time competing with oil.
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 03, 2011
I think you're missing the point: Oil is an energy carrier that can be transported and stored easily/indefinitely. Electricity/heat can't.

Are you sure that you're not missing the point?
My major concern is pollution with all the consequences that we and following generations shall have to bear. We must get away from fossils. Restrict their use for chemical processing; they're far to valuable to burn.
Transporting electric energy is even easier and cheaper than transporting any type of fossil fuel. Sustainable energy (solar) is clean and unlimited for the next 5 billion years.
Storage of electric energy is a bit more difficult (yet). There are viable methods to accomplish this and the sooner we get moving, the sooner these problems will be solved.
It's sad that there are too many people about, always willing to take the easiest, and cheapest way out. I guess it's just human nature to be selfish and egoistic and avoid, wherever possible, mental and physical productive work.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 04, 2011
We must get away from fossils.

I completely agree. But that day is not yet here. To give us the time to make the change we need to move via hybrid methods (like the one in the article that saves a lot of extra gas that would have otherwise been needed) to cleaner methods. Something like a complete switchover can't be accomplished in one day (or one year ... or one decade)

Transport of electricity is OK (though still more wateful over long distances - expressed as a percentage loss - than lugging oil around via tankers). storage is the problem. I'm hoping they solve it very soon. Until then we will have to keep relying (at least partially) on oil and gas.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.