When considering the relationship between renewables and fossil fuel companies, it is unlikely that we would associate them as ‘partners’. However, it is truly possible for these contrasting industries to join forces in a common project, as has been demonstrated by the California-based company GlassPoint. This enterprise, born in Silicon Valley, produces and installs solar steam generators designed for the oil and gas industry, maintaining a special focus on the sandy oilfields of the Middle East.
Glasspoint’s technology consists of large curved mirrors suspended inside a greenhouse. These mirrors direct the sunlight into a stationary boiler filled with water, where the heat gains transform the liquid into high-pressure steam. In order to maximize conversion, all mirrors are equipped with an automatic solar tracker system. Moreover, all the parts of the solar generator equipment are selected and assembled in compliance with the standards of the oil industry. For instance, the GlassPoint generators use pipes made of a special material instead of the stainless steel tubes utilized for similar systems, which are chemically incompatible with the characteristics of the oilfield water.
These solar-based systems can easily be integrated into oilfields carrying out thermal enhanced oil recovery (EOR) activities, which require steam for pumping out oil. In these sites, solar generators can produce all or part of the required steam during the day, but at night, gas generators must still be used to cover the demand. The GlassPoint generators use the same feedwater as the gas-based equipment, producing steam with equivalent properties. For facilities utilizing this configuration, solar-based generators can create the possibility of saving up to 80% of natural gas consumption, with all the economic and environmental benefits that it implies.
Some may argue that using renewables for powering activities inside the oil and gas industry contradicts the purpose of these technologies. Nevertheless, it must be considered that fossil fuels will be part of the energy scenario at least for the short to medium term. If these activities require substantial amounts of energy, why not take it from renewable sources? Surely, it will bring environmental benefits, for instance, GlassPoint has just initiated an ambitious project in the Amal oil facility located in Oman. The project, named Miraah, is intended to substitute one-third of the gas-based steam now used in this facility, potentially cutting up to 300 thousand tonnes of CO2 emissions. This is more than the total CO2 emissions saved in one year by all the electric cars sold in the US.
It is no secret that GlassPoint is receiving economic support from several fossil fuel companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Total. This can be seen as either negative or positive, but on the bright side, the situation can help to boost the interest of oil companies in renewable energy technologies. Additionally, investing resources in renewables-based companies, even if using oil money, could contribute to the improvement of current designs and the development of new sustainable technologies.