What do you think of when you hear the phrase “solar power”? Chances are, you don’t picture a Chevron oil field. Yet that’s exactly where BrightSource Energy wants to put a 29-megawatt solar thermal plant by the end of 2010.
As oil wells continue to age and run dry, oil companies have started to rely more and more on steam created by natural gas to enhance the liquid gold recovery process. But natural gas is not a renewable resource, which is why Chevron is experimenting with BrightSource’s 7,000-mirror solar thermal plant. Located on 100 acres of Chevron land in Coalinga, CA, the system will use the mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a water-filled boiler sitting on top of a tower. Steam generated from the system will be pumped into underground oil wells, where it will heat thick, heavy oil to make it easier for extraction. It’s a worthwhile experiment for the Coalinga field–over 90% of all oil in the area has been extracted since oil companies started pumping it in 1890.
It’s not a total fix for thick petroleum since solar steam-pumping doesn’t work on cloudy or rainy days, but it’s a safeguard for Chevron at a time when natural gas prices are volatile. If all goes well with the Coalinga field, Chevron might extend the technology to larger oil fields. That would be a coup for BrightSource, which has already agreed to supply 2,610 megawatts of solar power to California utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison. It could also signal the opening of a new market for solar steam companies like Ausra and eSolar. Oil companies may never be the main customers for solar providers, but the Chevrons of the world could be a lucrative side business that helps them through the solar industry’s growing pains.