CSP for enhanced oil recovery: Fuel efficient solution

Middle Eastern gas importers should be opting for concentrated solar power for oil recovery on end o

GlassPoint's solar enhanced oil recovery project (EOR) at Berry Petroleum's oilfield in McKittrick, CA.

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Dozens of ageing oil fields in the Middle East, and a growing reliance on gas imports is creating an urgent need for alternative energy sources. At the same time, CSP, more than any other solar technology, is proving its feasibility in a multitude of applications, the latest which is enhanced oil recover for the heavy oil sector.

The main advantage in using CSP for thermal EOR lies in the economic savings - whether by boosting oil production, saving on gas, or even in the technology itself.

EOR, also known as tertiary recovery, is commonly used in mature fields where secondary techniques such as water flooding no longer produce economically viable quantities of oil.

The Middle East has some of the worlds’ oldest oil fields, some older than 50 years . Given the anticipated rise in crude oil prices over the long-term, a growing number of oil companies are considering extracting more crude from older deposits.

Out of the three stages involved, EOR methods are responsible for the largest oil recovery, since after the primary and secondary stages the average reservoir will still contain around 70% of its original oil, meaning that EOR can sometimes extract just over half the total original reserves in place. The most popular EOR method in the industry today is gas and steam injection, better known as thermal recovery.

CSP’s ability to generate large quantities of steam in an economically beneficial manner; by using sunlight and without the need for burning natural gas, makes it hugely viable for use in thermal EOR.

Resource efficiency

By not burning gas, GCC economies would be freeing up a valuable resource that can be used for many higher value applications, such as power generation, desalination, and export from LNG producers, which are not many in the region.

In fact, with the exception of Qatar, the five other GCC countries lack natural gas and have to import it. Together, these nations are short of about 46 billion cubic metres of gas a year, about half the annual demand in the UK, according to estimates by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

According to a report by GDP Capital, the overall costs for CSP technology, specifically the parabolic trough design, have proven to be lower than the conventional steam generators used for thermal EOR today. Although the capital costs of CSP may be larger, the long-term operating costs are much less than that of burning fuels to generate steam.

And since material demands for CSP are much lower and more cost effective than the original steam generation technology, CSP also has the potential to simplify closing a project, which is usually very costly and complex.

Pioneering the concept

Although there are clear advantages in using CSP for thermal EOR, the first industry development of the concept only came on stream last year.  GlassPoint, a U.S. renewable energy company that won the Platts Global Energy Commercial Technology award in 2011, introduced the first commercial CSP thermal EOR project in California’s Kern County, a mature field undergoing superheated steam injection to extend its producing life.

Encouraged by the success of this project, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) contracted GlassPoint to build the Middle East’s first solar EOR system. At 7MW, the project is 27 times larger than the one installed in California.

“In the past year, we’ve brought solar EOR from concept to commercial reality. Now, we’re actively scaling worldwide from California to the Middle East,” said Rod MacGregor, GlassPoint CEO and President.

To withstand the harsh environmental conditions of the GCC region, GlassPoint’s Single Transit Trough technology has been designed to enclose lightweight reflective mirrors inside a glasshouse structure to protect the system from dirt, dust, sand and humidity. The company says its solution can reduce the amount of natural gas used for EOR by up to 80%.

Slow on the uptake

Across the region, several countries with heavy oil reserves could leverage the costs of CSP by integrating it into their oil recovery process. In Bahrain, Occidental has partnered with Bapco and Mubadala to form Tatweer, who are currently conducting pilot studies on the heavy oil reservoirs in the Awali field.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco is evaluating the use of CO2 injection and plans a series of pilot programs in mature fields like Ghawar. In the UAE, ADCO initiated an EOR project to test the injection of CO2 in the northeast Bab Field, a complex carbonate reservoir. Since the UAE is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, it is committed to reducing gas emissions, and solar EOR fits well in this picture.

To date, however, Oman is the only country in the Middle East developing a solar EOR system, in attempt to cut down on gas consumption. The GCC member wasn’t always short of gas, having built a gas export terminal years ago. But since its oil production peaked in 2000, causing production to fall by 27% over the next nine years, the country redirected most of its gas for use in EOR operations, boosting oil production again by 17%.

“Most of Oman’s gas reserves are deep and tight, making them costly to produce. Oman is working on projects to make them commercially viable”, Nasser Jashmi, undersecretary of the Oil and Gas Ministry said last October.

Oman is now contemplating building a gas import terminal as a last resort to tackle a shortage of the fuel. The country is aggressively pursuing EOR and has invested heavily into related methods, such as Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage techniques.

Given the favourable solar radiation in the Middle East – which in some places exceeds that of the Mojave Desert – the region has all the ingredients required for CSP-powered oil recovery.

Once CSP is accepted as a viable solution for steam generation in thermal EOR, the concept will emerge as a perfect example of synergy between renewable and non-renewable sources of energy, and even owners of oil and gas fields will realise that steam generation can be supplemented by solar power at almost no cost.


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