For years, the unforgiving desert of Oman has required special tools to extract some of the planet’s heaviest crude. The Persian Gulf sultanate’s repertoire now includes a technology not generally associated with oil pumping: solar-powered oil recovery.
One of the world’s largest solar plants will be constructed to coax Oman’s heavy oil out of the ground, according to Oman and its partners, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and French energy company Total SA. Called Miraah, which means “mirror” in Arabic, the $600 million, 1,021-megawatt solar-thermal facility is slated to be completed in 2017 and located at the Amal West oil field in South Oman.
The solar plant is the latest measure taken by Oman—the biggest Middle Eastern oil producer that isn’t a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries—in its fight to halt any decline in its production capacity. Oman is heavily dependent on oil for its economy and its energy sector accounts for about half of gross domestic product and three-quarters of government revenue.
Oman boosted its output from about 700,000 barrels a day in 2007 to more than 950,000 barrels a day in 2014 with the help of “enhanced oil recovery” techniques like injecting steam, natural gas and polymers into wells, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Enhanced oil recovery, known as EOR, commonly uses natural gas to extract heavy and viscous oil from difficult-to-access oil fields. Unlike solar panels that generate electricity, solar EOR uses large, curved mirrors to focus sunlight on a boiler tube containing water. The concentrated energy boils the water to produce steam which is then injected into a reservoir to heat the oil and reduce its viscosity, making it easier to extract and pump to the surface.
The solar plant will be built by Petroleum Development Oman, a joint venture between the Omani government, Shell and Total, and Fremont, Calif.-based GlassPoint Solar.
Petroleum Development Oman expects the technology to account for around a third of its total production by 2023. “The use of solar for oil recovery is a long-term solution,” said managing director Raoul Restucci.
Mr. Restucci said the solar project would free up the country’s natural gas, which had been used to help crude-oil recovery, for domestic use and exports.
Robin Mills, a Dubai-based energy analyst, said Oman had “complicated geology” that made it not easy to recover all of its fields’ potential.
He said other countries with heavy oil resources such as Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Egypt could benefit from enhanced oil recovery techniques.
“This is particularly important for Oman, given gas shortages and its need for EOR for its large heavy oil reserves,” said Mr. Mills.
The Miraah plant will comprise 36 glasshouse modules and will generate an average of 6,000 tons of solar steam daily for oil production. A glasshouse module is a self-cleaning structure that encloses and protects the solar collectors from wind, sand and dust storms common in Oman and throughout the Gulf region.
The total project area, including all supporting infrastructure, will span three square kilometers (740 acres).
In 2011, GlassPoint Solar teamed up with California oil producer Berry Petroleum to develop what it says was the first commercial solar EOR project on a hundred-year-old oil field in Bakersfield, Calif. Later that year, Chevron Corp. and BrightSource Energy Inc. unveiled a 29-megawatt solar-thermal power plant in the San Joaquin Valley, Calif.
Geert van de Wouw, managing director of Shell Technology Ventures, Shell’s corporate investing arm that invested in GlassPoint, the company providing the technology for the Miraah project, said that it “demonstrates the scale of opportunity for the oil and solar industries to expand together.”
Miraah will save 5.6 trillion British Thermal Units of natural gas each year, the amount of gas that could be used to provide residential electricity to 209,000 people in Oman, the companies said.
However, according to Mr. Mills, the energy analyst, recent lower oil prices casts doubt on the economics of high-cost EOR projects. Brent crude, the global benchmark, is trading at about $56 a barrel, about half its price this time last year.
“We are aiming to secure greater recovery of oil while at the same time reducing our energy consumption and our costs,” Petroleum Development Oman’s Mr. Restucci said.