Can Solar Clean Up Enhanced Oil Recovery?

Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) certainly doesn’t seem green at a first glance: it’s an umbrella term used to describe techniques that can increase the yield of crude oil extraction. EOR has been understood as enabling the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels by freeing up previously unreachable stores of oil. There’s a host of compelling reasons why oil is still being consumed on such a large scale, especially within the transportation sector; but the overarching theme of such discussions is that our oil dependence is not disappearing overnight. Cleantech Group’s i3 Platform reveals that the most active quarter for venture capital investing in the EOR sector came not in 2008 as it did for so many other types of cleantech, but during the last quarter of 2012. Making serious headway in this hyperactive EOR investment landscape are companies harnessing the power of the sun to make crude oil recovery a cleaner business. As oil prices ensure the continued growth of EOR, solar thermal is staging a takeover to bring more green to oil.

Enhanced Oil Recovery Sector: Venture Capital Activity

There are many methods for EOR, with steam injection being among the more common. In this approach, steam is introduced to the reservoir to reduce surface tension and increase the permeability of the oil by heating it and sometimes vaporizing it. Once the viscosity of the oil is so reduced, it proves much easier to displace and retrieve. Low costs have historically justified the use of natural gas to generate the steam for EOR, but innovators developed a way to avoid spending one fossil fuel to retrieve the other: solar thermal EOR.

The true beauty of solar thermal EOR is that it uses most of the same infrastructure and machinery as the natural gas variety. It simply uses a different source to generate the steam. In places where oil reservoirs coincide with abundant sunlight, solar thermal troughs whose steam is typically used to generate electricity can instead contribute to EOR efforts. A California-based company called GlassPoint Solar has developed a unique, lightweight composite mirror system that concentrates solar rays onto water pipes to produce the steam required for EOR. Complete with automated robotic cleaning devices that use recycled wash water to keep the glass surfaces clean, the company’s technology is now cost competitive even with natural gas.

In May 2013, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the largest producer of oil and gas in the Sultanate, commissioned the Middle East’s first solar enhanced oil recovery project using GlassPoint Solar’s proprietary technology. And many others are tackling the same market niche: BrightSource Energy, a solar thermal pioneer who recently partnered with Abengoa Solar to construct the world’s largest CSP facility to date, has begun modifying its technology for EOR applications. Hawaii’s Sopogy has already gained customer traction by deploying its micro-concentrating solar power with EOR capabilities in Mexico, Japan, Papua New Guinea and the US.

In 2011, the global market for all EOR technologies surpassed $125 billion, demonstrating an astronomical growth rate since the industry’s valuation at $55 billion in 2007. As long as oil prices remain high, the cost of adding EOR to drilling continues to make sense economically. The question that remains is whether solar thermal EOR technologies will be able to keep pace with more conventional methods, given the dauntingly low price and apparent abundance of natural gas. Yet as President Obama and other world leaders get serious about emissions standards, solar thermal EOR might prove to be the avenue down which oil industry giants turn to clean up their act.

About the blogger: Petra Janney is a senior at Harvard University and a research intern in Cleantech Group’s London office. She studies science & technology with a secondary focus in global health & health policy. Petra also enjoys screenwriting, digital design and experimenting with vegan cuisine.