October 3, 2023

Large scale consumption of energy has always been an enabler for improving the quality of life and all-around development of a nation. We have, so far, mostly relied on fossil fuels to further our economic growth without paying much heed to the side-effects this has had on the health of our environment.

This lack of environmental sensitivity, during our pursuit of economic growth, has now given birth to two twins: global warming and climate change. Both have cast dark shadows on the fossil fuel industry.

So as to maximize, within current technological boundaries, our return on investments made in fossil fuels, it would be prudent to explore other alternative energy resources which can either support, substitute or help mitigate the harmful side-effects of fossil fuels.

Among the available renewable energy sources, including wind energy, biomass, hydro, tidal, geothermal and solar, undoubtedly solar is the most viable and promising option for energy generation in the present and in the future.

Although solar and oil are at diametrically opposite poles in their environmental contribution to the emission of greenhouse gasses, companies have capitalized on the benefits of solar technology to coax more oil from depleted oil wells.

Enhanced Oil Recovery

With crude oil prices touching their nadir of the last thirteen years, has brought into focus the economics of extracting oil wells. Furthermore, the global oil pool is already flooded with an excess of supply. Low oil prices and the impact of production losses due to the closure of oil wells have already driven many companies to bankruptcy. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil, has in a strategic shift, fired its oil minister, which only goes to underscore the changing dynamics of the oil scenario.

Given the global focus on the environment, adopting a sustainable model for economic growth and development by investing in renewable energy technologies which integrates, collaborates, nurture and help mitigate environmental concerns can pay-off handsomely.

As per Frost & Sullivan, a company which specializes in energy and environmental research, the usage of solar EOR in place of LNG, has the potentially to save as much as 80% of the oil feed’s steam requirements, thereby bringing about substantial savings in LNG usage, which could be exported or utilized in another process.

“Oil and gas is the next big thing for solar. Oil fields consume gigawatts of energy and in heavy oil production about 20% of the barrels of heavy oil produced are consumed just making it,” said MacGregor, President and CEO of GlassPoint, a company which is collaborating with Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) to commission the country’s 1GW Miraah CSP plant.

In the oil equation, the operation of oil wells will necessarily emit greenhouse gas emissions, however with the addition of a solar CSP plant, the resulting carbon emission can be cut significantly.

In a traditional oil well operation, according to the EIA, most of the oil reserve in a reservoir that is operational remains untapped due to the physics of the oil flow.

Traditional operators use enormous quantities of LNG to pressurize the reservoir chamber in order to get to the hard-to-tap oil. A proven EOR technique involves injecting steam into a ‘matured reservoir’ aka depleted oil well, so as to thin the remaining heavier oil reserve and thus coax it to move towards the production, as shown in Figure 1.

If the depleted oil reservoir has heavy oil, thermal techniques are used to gain access to it.

Heat is introduced in the oil reservoir through steam which essentially lowers the

viscosity of the oil thus allowing it to flow easier to the production well. This method is normally adopted since the additional heat coaxes a larger quantity of oil to flow into the production well. This is where solar plants come into play.

Solar Power plants

Solar thermal energy is a proven technology. Older solar power plants have typically relied on parabolic trough collectors, recent advances bring alternative technologies including ones which make use of flat mirrors and a central tower plants with heliostats, which are essentially slightly curved mirrors.

Concentrated Solar Power plants are gradually becoming the norm: Oman’s Amal oil fields will be using the technology, Chevron Technology Ventures had launched a feasibility project to test the waters, while European industrial provider SUNCNIM, a pioneer in thermodynamic solar power, is all set to commission its CSP technology using Fresnel mirrors in the remote region of Cerdagne, in the Eastern Pyrenees.

The usage of solar power in EOR technologies could change the face of the oil industry: industry experts say that “Sixty percent of the cost of producing a barrel of oil is the cost of the steam. If we can halve the cost of steam versus LNG, we can make a significant economic contribution to the field.”

The energy industry uses a lot of energy to be operational. If the non-renewable portion of the energy that is used can be replaced by renewable energy resources, the resultant energy and its economic cost is huge. This is especially true since countries in the Arabian Gulf, excluding Qatar, have a shortage of LNG.

Countries in the Middle East are said to be ideally located for making the most out of Solar EOR technologies. Despite being at opposite ends odds in the environmental spectrum, oil companies are likely to eagerly adopt solar EOR technologies given the fact that it is becoming more difficult to extract oil, therefore it would be only prudent that companies adopt smarter, newer and more innovative technologies to capitalize on their sunken costs and recover oil, as much as is technologically possible from existing reservoirs.

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Sarah Jackson