One of the world’s largest solar farms is planned for the deserts of the Gulf country Oman. But unlike most solar plants that produce electricity to power homes and buildings, the gigantic solar farm will use the sun’s rays to create steam that will help the Arab nation extract oil out of the ground.
The project called Miraah (mirror in Arabic) at a cost of more than $600 million will be built across more than a square mile — 360 soccer fields — at the Amal oil field. When completed the solar plant will produce 6,000 tons of steam every day that will be used for oil production, and have a capacity for over a gigawatt of energy (the equivalent of a large natural gas or nuclear plant).
The solar farm will be built by Petroleum Development Oman, which is a joint venture between oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, energy company Total, and the Omani government. The technology will come from a California startup called GlassPoint. Construction of the project will start later this year and the site is expected to start producing steam in 2017.
The deal is not only a vote of confidence for this relatively new technology, but it’s a big win for the startup behind it. GlassPoint, based in Fremont, California, was founded in 2008 and early on backed by venture capitalists RockPort Capital, Nth Power and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, as well as the VC arm of Shell. Last year, Oman’s largest sovereign wealth fund, the State General Reserve Fund, led the company’s most recent round of funding.
GlassPoint designs its solar farms using rows of glass houses containing six-meter high steel curved mirrors. The mirrors concentrate sunlight onto water-containing steel pipes that produce steam. The glass structures protect the equipment from wind, sand, dust and humidity.
This technology is called solar thermal and other companies like BrightSource are also using mirrors, steam and turbines to produce solar energy and electricity. But GlassPoint is unique in that it’s solely focused on using solar energy for enhanced oil recovery, which is a huge and growing business.
Oil companies commonly inject steam and natural gas into oil wells to get them to produce more oil. Currently Petroleum Development Oman is using natural gas to stimulate the oil wells at the Amal oil field. By using steam from the solar site instead of gas, the group is saving enough natural gas to generate a year’s worth of electricity for more than 200,000 people.
At Miraah, the group will build 36 of GlassPoint’s glass houses. The startup built a much smaller 7-megawatt solar project for Petroleum Development Oman a couple years ago. Before that its first project was for Berry Petroleum in California’s Kern County.
Petroleum Development Oman accounts for 70% of the nation’s oil production and all of its gas supply. Oman is highly dependent on oil and gas production for its economy and has significantly boosted its output using enhanced oil recovery.
GlassPoint has raised over $80 million in funding and is an example of one of the rare Silicon Valley, venture capital-backed startups that has managed to find customers for its next-gen energy tech.