“The IKEA of Solar Fields”

Oman Project Is A Step Toward ‘The Ikea Of Solar’

GlassPoint installation in Oman, with oil rigs in background (Credit: GlassPoint)
In the desert of southern Oman, near the border with Yemen, 4 acres of glass houses catch the sun. They sit in the Amal West oilfield, operated by Petroleum Development Oman. But these glasshouses aren’t growing tomatoes, or any other crop, rather they are making steam.

When it comes to developing its oil and gas reserves Oman faces a conundrum. The small country on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula has a lot of oil, but it is mostly of the heavy kind.

Far from gushing up out of the sands, this oil is stubborn and needs to be coaxed out of its reservoirs. To do that, Petroleum Development Oman (60% Oman government, 34% Royal Dutch Shell), has perfected the technique of blasting steam down into the oil reservoirs to soften and loosen up the thick crude and push it up to the surface. Heating water to make that steam for injection requires a lot of energy.

They could use some of the oil they pull up to generate steam, but it’s more profitable to sell that on the world market. So instead, PDO burns natural gas. Oman still has a lot of gas, but is in the process of doubling gas prices for industrial users, and has even had to divert some of its supply away from LNG exports and into the oilfields.

A solution could be on the horizon. At PDO’s Amal West oil field in southern Oman, a California-based company called GlassPoint has installed an innovative solar system that seeks to assist in the steam-generation process by boiling water with sunshine.

From outside, the GlassPoint installation doesn’t look a thing like any solar project you may have in your mind’s eye. It’s not photovoltaic-based, so there’s no panels. And there’s no stand-alone solar-concentrating dishes.

These glasshouses are filled with flimsy mirrors–little more than curved sheets of aluminum foil, suspended by wires from the ceiling. Motors pull the wires, adjusting the mirrors’ pitch to ensure they’re tracking the sun perfectly. The reflected rays are focused and concentrated to heat water inside a network of pipes, boiling it into steam that is continually injected down oil wells deep underground, loosening up and pushing out the gunky crude.

There’s good reasons for putting the gear under glass. Wind is a problem for solar installations — they need to be sturdy enough to withstand gusts, and heavier systems require more robust actuators and gears. Glasspoint’s technique enables them to use cheaper, lightweight materials. The glass also protects the gear from dust — it’s easier to clean dust off of glass than from mirrors.

The Oman project, covering 4 acres and generating the equivalent of 7 mw of energy per day, is only a test pilot. But so far the tests look good. Syham Bentouati, head of new technology implementation at PDO writes in an email that the system has already proven that it can generate steam at the right specs for oil recovery. Next is for GlassPoint to prove that the system can work reliably for a year. “So far, the performance is very promising and likely to be above contractual requirement,” writes Bentouati.

If all goes well, a full-scale GlassPoint build out in Oman could come next. PDO won’t say how big, or what it might cost, but industry sources suggest the scale would consist of more like 3,000 mw and cost upwards of $1.5 billion, assuming installation costs of roughly 50 cents per watt.
GlassPoint is already gearing up for that kind of scale. I recently chatted with Rod MacGregor, CEO of GlassPoint, who said that with help from a $26 million investment by Royal Dutch Shell he has opened a factory with 100 people working in Shenzhen, China building components. Their goal is to make the sets so simple and easy to build that labor costs can be kept to a minimum.

It’s a simple vision, says MacGregor, who is also eyeing Kuwait and Bahrain as future customers: “We want to be the Ikea of solar fields.”

For more on Glasspoint, check out this story about their first installation at a Berry Petroleum oil field in California.

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