Shining a light on EOR

 By Mike Scott

What are the prospects for enhanced oil recovery using solar power? Solar EOR involves using concentrated solar equipment to produce steam to be injected into the well to increase both the rate of production and the total amount of oil that can be recovered. Most EOR projects use natural gas to produce the steam so using solar can help to reduce the carbon footprint of oil projects as well as the volatility of production costs. The process has been pioneered by companies such as Glasspoint Solar Inc in the Sultanate of Oman and California and Brightsource. Mike Scott explains what are the advantages of solar EOR and how the nascent technology can survive the fall in oil prices…

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Oil producers have used enhanced oil recovery (EOR) since the 1960s to extend the life of mature oil fields. Pumping chemicals, gases such as CO2 or steam into a well can increase the amount of oil that is recovered from 20-40% to 30-60% according to the US Department of Energy.

Much of the oil that is left – some 70% according to EOR company GlassPoint – is heavy oil that will need EOR to extract it. Steam-based procedures, also known as thermal EOR, typically use natural gas captured as part of the drilling process to produce steam, which is injected into the well, making the oil more liquid and thus easier to bring to the surface.

Buying fuel makes up 60% of the operating cost of a typical heavy oilfield, GlassPoint vice-president of business development John O’Donnell says, and 10% of global oil and gas production is consumed by the oil and gas industry itself.

While CO2 injection is growing in popularity, especially as regulators crack down on greenhouse gas emissions, companies such as GlassPoint and Brightsource – both US-based – are using the power of the sun to produce steam for thermal EOR. Both companies use a form of concentrated solar power – where mirrors concentrate sunlight onto receivers that turn the sunlight into heat – rather than photovoltaic panels, which produce electricity rather than heat.

EOR Project, Oman (Imagine by
The gas not burned at the oilfield can be diverted for export, power generation or to expand new industries, diversifying the economy...

According to the consultancy Ernst & Young, “solar EOR can generate the same quality and temperature of steam as natural gas. Therefore, the use of solar EOR could reduce demand for natural gas required for EOR, which can be redirected to other economic activities, such as power generation, water desalination and as feedstock and energy for industrial processes.”

It can also be deployed in fields that produce little or no gas, reducing the need to import gas. In Oman, which uses 22% of its gas resources for EOR, GlassPoint has built a successful pilot project and is now building one of the largest solar schemes in the world, the 1,021MW Miraah scheme.

When complete, Miraah will save 5.6 trillion British Thermal Units (Btus) of gas a year, enough to provide power to 209,000 people and save 300,000 tons of CO2 a year, the company says. “The gas not burned at the oilfield can be diverted for export, power generation or to expand new industries, diversifying the economy,” says O’Donnell.

GlassPoint says that its technology has impressive potential not just in Oman but right across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in markets such as California. “In Oman they have gas but not enough to meet growing domestic demand. On the other hand, Kuwait just doesn’t have gas and they are looking at importing LNG in order to produce their heavy oil. Solar EOR is well-suited for any region that needs steam to produce heavy oil and enjoys abundant sunshine,” O’Donnell adds, estimating that the market for the technology is $115 billion and in excess of 225GW.

about the author
Mike Scott
Journalist. Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Investing, Energy, Supply Chain, Transport, Circular Economy, Stranded Assets, ESG, Smart Cities, Wealth Management, Family Offices, Asset Management, EU.