The future of oil: will it be based on solar energy?

The days when oil economies rode on the strength of their production levels, is history. With OPEC and non-OPEC economies adding millions of barrels per day to the global oil pool, the resultant glut has seen oil prices crash to their 13-year lows. Such has been the economic impact of the global oil glut, the world’s largest oil refinery in Saudi Araba had to wind up its operations.

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Moreover, the enormous carbon footprint of oil extractions has largely been held accountable for global warming. Oil-based economies have received a double whammy: not only has overproduction been a drag on their economy, but with the onset of global warming and climate change, countries around the world have grown more environmentally friendly and are in the process of weaning themselves from the lure of oil. A greener, more integral, carbon neutral and yet cost-effective approach, has become the only viable option left today.

Enhanced Oil Recovery

In order to thrive in these challenging times, smart operators have largely relied on Enhance Oil Recovery (EOR) techniques to significantly boost individual oil wells production levels.

Case in point: when drilling for oil using conventional methods, given the fact that an initial extraction rate is pegged only at 15%, the remaining 85% of the hydrocarbons, typically remains untapped in the reservoir. Although initial gas injections and pump jacks can hike up the capture rate by 25% to 30%, applying Solar EOR techniques can hike up the extraction rate further by 10% to 15%.

Using these Solar EOR techniques, large quantities of oil can be recovered from existing wells despite the fact that they exhibit poor permeability, heavy oil and irregular fault lines.

What most people don’t immediately realize is that the oil and the energy sector are one of the biggest consumers of energy: actually, it takes energy to produce energy. For example, nearly a quarter of Oman’s LNG supplies are utilised to produce oil.

In a typical oil well operation that uses EOR techniques, LNG, stimulants or other liquids are pumped in at high pressure through designated injection wells, known as “flooders”. High pressure in these wells is used to drive the hydrocarbons to targeted production wells. If EOR techniques would not have been utilised 75% of the oil would have remained in the reservoir.

When using EOR techniques, instead of using natural gas, to generate the pressure, using solar energy would make the operation more economical for a variety of reasons: not only does it not consume any fuel, it does not also produce any greenhouse gasses and thus the whole operation is more in line with the country’s COP21 commitments.

The benefits of selling, exporting or re-utilising the tons of LNG saved, if solar energy is used during an EOR process is significant as it provides immense economic value.

Solar Powered EOR

Using solar energy in the EOR process can result in the generation of steam having the same temperature and quality when LNG was used to process it, but with the added benefit of freeing up the LNG for sale and other usages.

The usage of Fresnel mirror technology in CSPs is such that it not only provides a modular approach which can be scaled up as per requirement, but is also easy to install and maintain, does not use any intermediary fluid that is harmful to the environment, is fully recyclable, can be easily integrated into the grid, and can be installed in an isolated location.

The application of Concentrated Solar Power Plants (CSP) along with EOR techniques that will be used in Oman’s $600 million Miraah project could immensely benefit its economy.

Incidentally, in Arabic, “Miraah” means mirror. The usage of Linear Fresnel Reflectors (LFR) technology in Oman’s Miraah CSP plant could result in massive savings that could provide 200,000 homes with electricity, a significant boost to its LNG exports, has preserved precious water, slashed emissions levels and have gone a long way in meeting Oman’s economic diversification goals under its Vision 2020.

SUNCNIM, the French company that builds turnkey solar steam generators and power plants using its proprietary Fresnel technology, lists numerous benefits of its compact linear Fresnel reflectors (CLFR): “The components involved are simple; materials are low cost and commonly used on most markets. Furthermore, due to the simple design, assembly and erection of the solar plant is directly carried out on site using temporary workshops and will create many jobs close to the erection site.” These benefits are especially significant for the Middle East following its public show of support to tackle emissions at the COP21 talks in Paris, last December.

Carbon Neutral Oil

The mix of solar power plants aiding carbon-centric oil rigs, is surprising but necessary. In order to cushion against turbulent oil prices and their dwindling reserves, so as to boost the diversity of an economy and increase its carbon neutral profile and at the same time in order to generate fresh water, solar is actually the only answer viable option.

As per the Managing Director of Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), “The use of solar for oil recovery is a long-term strategic solution to develop PDO’s viscous oil portfolio and reduce consumption of valuable natural gas, which is needed elsewhere to diversify Oman’s economy and create economic growth.”

What makes investing in solar a clinching deal is the fact that solar energy is potentially inexhaustible – the energy is free and abundant. With global energy policies calling for an increased usage of sustainable and renewable technologies so as to mitigate the twin evils of climate change and global warming, solar power plants are proving to be especially valuable in the reduction of carbon footprint during the extraction process of fossil fuels.

The fact of the matter is, as long as our economies are oil-centric, emissions of greenhouse gases are inevitable. However, in order to comply with existing global commitments, diminish the profile of emissions of greenhouse gases, improve the yield of existing operations oil wells, diversify the economy as well as provide employment, solar energy power plants are a viable alternative for the smart enterprising few who can see budding opportunities even during this time of economic challenges.

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Categories: Geopolitics

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