Oil Giant To Build World’s Largest Solar Project

The state oil company of Oman announced a deal with Californian solar developer GlassPoint to build the world’s largest solar project. Named Miraah, the $600M installation will cover 750 acres with glass houses inside which sheets of aluminum will catch sun rays and concentrate the energy to produce steam. The peak output will be in excess of 1,000 megawatts.
Just how big is that? By comparison, the largest currently operating solar farms, built by First Solar in California, have nameplate capacity of 550 mw. What use does a Middle Eastern oil giant have for solar power? Well many of the fields operated by Petroleum Development Oman, or PDO, contain heavy oil. Loosening up that oil and getting it to flow requires the injection of massive amounts of steam. PDO currently burns natural gas to generate that steam, but with gas reserves depleting, that’s not sustainable. After three years of study, PDO (which produces more than 1.25 million bbl per day) has determined that solar power is a more economic method.
The Miraah project will produce 6,000 tons of steam per day, enough to coax out about 35,000 barrels per day of heavy oil in the Amal field. Over the course of a year the solar collectors will displace about 5.6 trillion BTU of natural gas, that’s enough to provide electricity for more than 200,000 Omanis. “This opens up the opportunity for Oman to use its natural gas for higher-value applications, to diversify its economy and create more jobs,” says John O’Donnell, v.p. of GlassPoint, in an interview today. Will Miraah really be able to claim the title of world’s biggest solar installation? After all, its solar collectors are turning the sun’s energy into steam, not electricity like those big California solar farms. O’Donnell says there’s really no distinction. “A watt is a watt whether it’s in the form of electricity or in heat.”
PDO has tested numerous solar steam systems over the past five years, and GlassPoint built a pilot plant there in 2012. The San Francisco-based company’s technology won out for the Miraah project because of its simplicity and reliability. From afar, the system looks like row after row of agricultural greenhouses, but instead of tomato plants the houses are filled with flimsy mirrors, little more than curved sheets of aluminum foil, suspended by wires from the ceiling. As the sun moves across the sky, small motors pull the wires to adjust the mirrors’ pitch. The reflected rays are concentrated on a network of pipes carrying water.