World’s Biggest Solar Heat Plant Backed by Oman to Boost Oil

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GlassPoint's solar enhanced facility at Amal West Oilfield
GlassPoint's solar enhanced oil recovery facility at the Amal West Oilfield. Source: GlassPoint via Bloomberg

Oman’s largest oil producer ordered work to begin on what will be one of the biggest solar plants in the world, establishing the technology as an alternative to fossil fuels for coaxing crude out of the ground.

GlassPoint Solar Solar Inc. will build the facility at the Amal oilfield in southern Oman, according to a statement on Wednesday. Rows of parabolic mirrors covering 2 square kilometers (0.8 square mile) will heat 1,021 megawatts of steam, which will be injected into underground reservoirs to reduce the viscosity of the crude produced there.

The development is a landmark both for its scale and because it shows the oil industry can tap renewables instead of its own supplies to power its own facilities. Those energy needs are vast and growing as the top grades of crude drain away, leaving producers dependent on heavier deposits.

“It’s a real vote of confidence in GlassPoint, and it’s quite big,” said Jenny Chase, chief solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Zurich. “If it’s successful, it could spread solar-thermal technology to other applications where heat is used.”

Petroleum Development Oman, which is 60 percent held by the government, is sponsoring the project. Royal Dutch Shell Plc, among the investors that helped GlassPoint of Fremont, California, raise $53 million in September, owns 34 percent of the Oman oil company. Total SA owns 4 percent.

Energy Demand

GlassPoint said its technology can reduce energy needs at oilfields by up to 80 percent at heavy oil fields where energy is needed to lift supplies out of underground rock formations. Those fields are common in California, the Middle East and Venezuela, and they typically require energy equivalent to 1 barrel of oil for every five produced.

It’s natural gas or oil that has fed those power needs in the past. Substituting solar as a power source will free up more supplies for export.

“What we are aiming to do is secure greater recovery of oil while at the same time reducing our energy consumption and costs,” Raoul Restucci, managing director of PDO, said after the contract was signed in Muscat.

GlassPoint’s innovation is to install agricultural greenhouses over the fragile parabolic mirrors that heat the water, protecting the units from violent sandstorms and winds the buffet the Middle East.

Pilot Project

Oman has been experimenting with the technology at a GlassPoint pilot project on the Amal field, where it produces about 50 tons of steam since 2010. That unit producing 7 megawatts of steam for enhanced oil recovery, or EOR, will continue to operate once the new ones start working in 2017, the statement said.

“The oil and gas industry is the next major market for solar energy,” said Rod MacGregor, president of GlassPoint. “Our efforts with PDO will pave the way for additional large-scale solar EOR developments at oilfields around the world.”

The project will break ground this year and comprise 36 glasshouse modules protecting the rows of mirrors. The project will cover a total of 3 square kilometers, with the solar field covering 2 square kilometers.

GlassPoint said that when it’s finished, the project will deliver more energy than any other solar development. Chase at New Energy Finance said that the energy supplied in the form of heat makes it smaller than some of solar plants built by First Solar Inc. that generate electricity.

The GlassPoint plant will save 5.6 trillion British thermal units of natural gas each year that would have been used to heat steam for injection at the field. That’s enough to power a city of 209,000 people in Oman.

It will also reduce Oman’s carbon dioxide emissions by 300,000 metric tons annually, the equivalent of taking 60,000 cars off the road.

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