Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) has awarded the region’s first contract for solar-powered enhanced oil recovery (EOR) to GlassPoint Solar.

The US-based company will supply a 7MW solar array will create steam that will be used for ‘steamflooding’ EOR at Oman’s depleting oil reservoirs.

“After extensively researching solar EOR solutions, we’ve identified GlassPoint as the most promising technology for this pilot,” says Syham Bentouati, corporate technology adviser at PDO.

Construction on the project is planned to commence in February 2012 and the array will be completed before the year is out, according to Rod MacGregor, chief executive officer at GlassPoint.

Oman plans to produce 850,000 barrels a day (b/d) of crude oil in 2011 and to increase production to about 1 million b/d over the next five years. To sustain and increase production, PDO has made extensive use of EOR over the past decade. The technique creates the pressure needed to push oil to the surface, necessary as pressure in tapped reservoirs decreases alongside the amount of oil and gas. Oman’s oil fields are among the oldest in the region.

Should the pilot be a success, MacGregor expects further business in Oman. “We wouldn’t be doing this without the intention to expand,” he says.

The company also expects to strike further deals in the Gulf this year. “We’re pretty much at some level of discussion with everybody,” says MacGregor. “I think we’ll be making another announcement before the end of the year.”

Steamflooding is a widely used EOR technique, in which steam recreates the pressure of produced oil and gas and pushes the crude to the production wells. GlassPoint system will produce 11 tonnes of high-temperature, high-pressure steam an hour from a solar array spanning more than four acres.This is sufficient to push about 33,000 barrels of oil to the surface, says MacGregor. The steam from the array will be channelled into the existing steam distribution network, rather than supplying a specific field.

Solar EOR reduces the need for natural gas, the feedstock for steam production and often the substance pumped into fields to create pressure. Oman uses 200 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of natural gas a year for enhanced oil recovery, says MacGregor, enough to power every household in Oman five times over.

Like all GCC countries other than Qatar, Oman is facing a shortage of natural gas that has seen it delay its industrial development. The sultanate is also pursuing a project with Shell to produce tight gas, a costly and technically complex undertaking.

While the capital costs for the solar array outweigh the equipment costs for gas-based EOR, this is outweighed by the lack of feedstock costs, says MacGregor

“If you look at the levelised cost of energy [solar EOR] comes in at between $3-4. Gas is at $5 today, making solar very price competitive.”

The main drawback of solar EOR is the large surface area covered by the array. Large-scale projects would require vastly more space than the Omani pilot’s 7MW array. While this problem is mitigated by the remote location of most of the world’s oil fields, it is not a feasible option for offshore production and could obstruct onshore production. Large projects would necessitate thousands of acres, says MacGregor. “You want to be careful not to put the solar arrays over somewhere where there is oil.”

Oman is not the first country to consider alternatives to gas-based EOR. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are experimenting with injecting carbon dioxide into reservoirs. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company has already completed a successful pilot project at its Rumaitha field, while Saudi Aramco is to launch a similar scheme at its Ghawar field by 2013.