Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Solar Powered Oil Field...That Still Needs Natural Gas

Here is an interesting article from the New York Times about Chevron's partnership with (and investment in) a solar power company called BrightSource Energy.  BrightSource is planning to build a 29 megawatt solar powered steam plant to produce high pressure steam for injection into oil wells to enhance oil recovery at a Chevron oil field in Coalinga, CA.  Normally this function would be powered by natural gas. 

While the article is clear that the solar steam plant would displace natural gas, I still think it's a cool use of technology.  BrightSource and other competitors are targeting similar oil field projects elsewhere, including the Middle East (lots of sun, but lots of cheap gas too).  As a competitor to natural gas for this function, the article cites a report that states that solar steam systems would be competitive against natural gas up to a natgas price of $8.50/MMBtu. 

Hopefully the company won't take its eye off the big ball, which is large scale power generation, preferably to displace dirty coal plants.

While this article paints the solar steam technology as a viable energy source, it also points out that because it only works during the daytime, the oil field will still need a natural gas-fired steam source too.  While this type of project has the potential to displace natural gas, the truth is that its viability actually depends on natural gas as a backup fuel.  Ultimately, the success of renewables and alternative energy is dependent on the use of clean burning and amply supplied natural gas, both as "a bridge to the future" and as a backup energy source.

No comments: