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With a little help from the sun
Entrepreneurial engineers Rod MacGregor and Pete von Behrens have found a way to make the process of extracting oil by harnessing the power of the sun more efficient. Their simple but ingenious idea to house equipment in a giant glasshouse has been boosted by outside support from several sources, including the Shell Technology Ventures programme.
Rod MacGregor and Pete von Behrens have a knack for coming up with brilliant ideas that have developed into commercially successful products. The engineers and serial entrepreneurs have several joint companies and successful innovations behind them – such as miniature electric motors now embedded in millions of VW, BMW and Mercedes cars.
Now they have turned their attention to the latest challenge to excite their imaginations: how to use clean renewable solar power to help boost oil production from existing fields in a more cost-effective, energy-efficient and sustainable way.
Unlocking trapped energy
Traditionally natural gas is burned to generate steam for injection into reservoirs. The steam heats thick oil, helping it to flow more freely and boost production: a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Gas, however, is a valuable resource in many oil producing countries, especially in the Gulf states of the Middle East where it is needed to generate power and desalinate water.
One way to reduce natural gas consumption – and also cut CO2 emissions – by as much as 80% in EOR operations is to use solar power to produce steam. The gas saved can then be used where it is needed the most to generate electricity for industrial applications or exported as liquefied natural gas.
But conventional solar thermal technologies can be costly; the rows of mirrors which collect sunlight are made of expensive, heavy steel, and require substantial, concrete structures that anchor them to the ground against strong winds. Dust and debris collect on the mirrors, which makes them less efficient and call for frequent, labour-intensive cleaning.
“My partner, Pete von Behrens, had the great idea of putting the entire solar field in a glasshouse,” says MacGregor. “By enclosing the troughs in an agricultural-grade glasshouse, we can use low-weight, low-cost materials to reduce the capital cost of the field by more than half.”
Inside the glass there is no wind and no dust. The troughs are so light that they hang from the glass ceiling, like tomato plants in a greenhouse. While they must still be cleaned, an automated robot cleans the glasshouse roof, reducing operations and maintenance costs and conserving water.
MacGregor and von Behrens formed a new company called GlassPoint in their home state of California, USA, and began work on turning this promising Enclosed Trough technology into a business.
Making a vision reality
Independent energy company Berry Petroleum of California recognised the technology’s potential and invited GlassPoint to install a pilot plant at a 100-year-old oil field in California. The plant started up in 2011 and was the world’s first commercial solar EOR project.
This was followed by a second project, 27 times bigger than the first, for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the largest oil producer in Oman in which Shell has a 34% interest. The pilot plant started production in December 2012 and was officially commissioned in February 2013. Between February and July it replaced around 400,000 m³ of gas, saving 800 tonnes of CO2 emissions that would otherwise have been emitted from the gas fired steam generators. [i] To date, the project produces 10% more steam than originally expected.
In 2012 Shell Technology Ventures invested in GlassPoint, attracted by the technology’s potential to reduce the cost and carbon footprint of EOR. In return, this gives GlassPoint access to Shell’s expertise and global network of partners in the energy industry.
“When Shell makes an investment in a small company like ours, potential customers take note,” says MacGregor. “Shell’s investment and interest legitimises the technology and helps put our company on the map.”
[i] Based on MMBTU/ton: 2.18. OTSG efficiency: 85%. CO2 (lbs/MMBTU): 117. 1 ton= 2,200lb. Cumulative output of steam up to end of June: 5,600 tons. MMBTU gas replaced: 14,360. CO2 avoided: 760 tons