Mar 042011
 

New thermal plant uses a greenhouse to make solar steam cheap.

How do you make mirror-concentrated sunlight cheaper than burning natural gas? Put it in a greenhouse, argues new solar start-up GlassPoint, which unveiled its first such solar hot water greenhouse on February 24—in a dusty, old oil field in California’s Central Valley. Why? Because cheap steam means more oil.

Ensconced amidst the derricks of Berry Petroleum Company’s oil field in McKittrick, Calif., the 650-square-meter demonstration of a greenhouse-based solar thermal steam plant will help pre-heat water to 88 degrees Celsius. That hot water will then be boiled to steam with natural gas and used to heat the rock in old oil fields to pump out more petroleum.

“Steam is the largest cost associated with producing oil in these thermal projects,” says GlassPoint vice president John O’Donnell. “Now you can run them longer because the steam is cheaper. You can get 10 to 20 percent more oil production out of the same well.”

The goal is to provide a cleaner and cheaper way to heat up the steam used to melt the field’s thicker oils and scour out more of the black gold. Essentially, the technology heats cubic volumes of rock to roughly 175 degrees Celsius to melt heavy oils and get them flowing. Roughly 40 percent of the oil produced from California’s century-old fields relies on the steam technique—and it is the largest industrial use of natural gas in that state.

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