Some oil and gas companies are turning to renewables, particularly solar, to boost oil production from fields as they work to reduce carbon footprints while meeting today’s global energy needs.

Occidental of Oman, a subsidiary of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: OXY), is among the latest companies to take the step. The company signed an agreement this week with GlassPoint Solar that could lead to a more than 2-gigawatt solar thermal energy plant at the Mukhaizna oil field in Oman.

“This is a strategic opportunity for us to tap into solar as a sustainable source of energy in order to minimize the carbon footprint of our operations,” Steve Kelly, president and general manager of Occidental of Oman, said in a statement about the agreement.

GlassPoint, the technology company behind solar EOR projects for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) and California’s Berry Petroleum Corp. (NASDAQ: BRY), would use its solar technology to produce steam that would, in turn, be purchased by Occidental and used to produce heavy oil. By eliminating the use of natural gas in the EOR process, the proposed project could cut CO2 emissions by more than 800,000 tons annually, according to GlassPoint.

The agreement comes as the energy industry incorporates more renewables into the mix and the world turns to cleaner forms of energy like natural gas. Some companies have plunged into renewable forms of energy by stepping up investments in wind and solar as well as carbon capture, utilization and storage. Others have added renewables to assist in producing more oil, considering current and future oil demand remains.

Driving Innovation

Steam flood projects for EOR frees up natural gas, which would have otherwise been used for EOR, for power generation.

Tunde Deru, director of sales for GlassPoint’s North America region, recently explained the company’s enclosed trough technology. Instead of solar panels, large mirrors inside a greenhouse are used to track and capture sunlight. The reflected sunrays are concentrated on pipes carrying oilfield water, boiling the water to create steam. The steam is then injected into the oil reservoir.

“It’s just like focusing the rays of the sun onto a piece of paper and that paper gets darkened because of the light intensity on a point. We just focus the heat of the sun on the pipes that carry water and we get steam produced,” Deru told Hart Energy.

However, when there is no sunlight, steam cannot be produced. So oil producers deploy a hybrid solution—gas-fired steam generators are used to ensure steam production is provided around the clock.

Currently, engineering work is underway to define the scope and field integration plans for the proposed project with Occidental. But the company has already delivered a project for PDO, creating solar steam to help produce heavy oil at the Amal oil field as part of a gigawatt-scale project called Miraah. Miraah, which delivered first steam about a year ago, is expected to generate 6,000 tons of steam daily, saving a substantial portion of the gas used for EOR at Amal, according to GlassPoint.

Another project is unfolding in California, where GlassPoint has partnered with Aera Energy to build what is being billed as California’s largest solar energy project based on peak energy output.

Going Big In Cali

Located at the Belridge oil field west of Bakersfield, California, the project comprises an 850-megawatt (MW) thermal solar thermal facility that will produce 12 million barrels (MMbbl) of steam annually and a 26.5-MW electrical photovoltaic facility that will generate electricity. The project is expected to save 4.87 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas.

“The main difference between the one in Oman and the one in California is that the one in California is integrated with solar PV electricity,” Deru said. “So you have a combination of solar electricity and solar steam in California.”

The technology could prove beneficial for Belridge, one of the oldest and biggest oilfield production complexes in California. The field has thousands of wells, 10 oil and water treating plants, 100 steam generators, two cogeneration plants and one gas processing plant, according to the company’s website. Production at the field, which has been operational since 1916, is about 80,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day—far from its peak of about double that in 1986.

Most of the state’s heavy oil fields require steam injection to help get more oil from reservoirs, Deru explained. The GlassPoint project is expected to provide a portion of the field’s total steam requirements. Currently, engineering and design work is in progress with plans to start construction in 2019.

Work is progressing as California moves to reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons, increasing renewables use in an effort to lower emissions. Growth in the state’s energy demand has been restrained by initiatives to increase energy efficiency and implement alternative technologies, while lowering electricity and hydrocarbon consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Falling Production

The state remains one of the biggest producers of petroleum in the U.S., although statistics from California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources show state oil production has fallen from about 205 MMbbl in 2014 to 174 MMbbl in 2017. This includes declines at the South Belridge Field, where oil production slid from 23.6 MMbbl to 21.2 MMbbl during the same time frame.

RELATED: Why California Oil Production Needs To Ramp Up

California imports oil and gas, which has also seen a drop in production levels. Data show California’s net gas production has tumbled from 186.9 Bcf in 2014 to 162.7 Bcf in 2017.

“Having this project come online would reduce the dependence on imported natural gas into California,” Deru said after pointing out it also reduces natural gas consumption at oil fields.

The projects underway can be replicated just about anywhere with a couple of crucial caveats: there must be consistent sunlight and a need for heat, according to Deru.

“We continue to explore other opportunities for solar steam generation in the oil fields and other industries within the Sun Belt, or where there is consistent sunshine,” he said.

“As we progress in the oil and gas industry toward maintaining a low carbon footprint, GlassPoint’s solution compared to other technologies provides the greatest reduction in carbon footprint for producers of heavy oil in California and around the world,” Deru added. “[The technology] reduces the burning of natural gas, reduces carbon emissions and ensures that you get emissions-free steam for your oil recovery.”

Velda Addison can be reached at vaddison@hartenergy.com.