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Oil and Solar Do Mix

Solar power's portability has made it a go-to technology for projects out in the boonies, like oil production.
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Oil and solar do mix — and have for a long time.

Last month, the oil and solar industry joined hands in an oil field about a century off its prime Chevron owns in Coalinga, Calif., where steam is required to sufficiently thin what oil remains so it can be extracted. The oil company signed a deal with Bright Source Energy to build a demonstration project: Thousands of flat mirrors will reflect concentrated sunlight on a boiler atop a tower, superheating the water to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to produce high-pressure steam. The mirrors will move throughout the day to track the sun. While the "Luz Power Tower" usually generates steam to run a turbine that cranks out electricity, in this case the steam will be injected right into the aging field.

Coalinga (named for once having been Coaling Station A on the Southern Pacific, not for another source of fossil fuels) has the perfect environment for Bright Source's technology — lots of sunshine and flat terrain. The installation not only allows Chevron to green its operation but also protects the oil company from the volatile cost of natural gas, which usually powers steam-based pumping.

Bright Source and other companies that produce steam from solar heat could find a large demand for their technology in areas like the Middle East, where older oil fields and sun abound. It could also give these fledgling solar companies the opportunity to fine-tune their equipment for the much larger utility market they want to break into.

But sunlight and subterranean goo have a partnership that goes back much further.

The oil giant Exxon (then Esso) underwrote the first photovoltaic company, Solar Power Corporation, to commercialize solar cells for earth applications. In the early 1970s, Solar Power found its first market in powering warning lights and horns for offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Previously, large primary batteries that lasted for less than a year had done the job. Reliability, paramount for safety equipment, made biweekly servicing and frequent replacement of non-rechargeable batteries a necessity. Moving them on and off the platforms was a chore: The batteries were heavy and highly toxic. All the boat trips and helicopter rides out to the platforms to tend the batteries, to bring out and install new ones and to take old ones back to shore made for a very steep bill, not to mention the high cost of the batteries themselves.

In contrast, when a sun-charged battery went bad, a replacement cost $160, compared to $2,100 for a non-rechargeable battery. Furthermore, the entire photovoltaic-powered system could be transported by a small standby skiff. Moving a non-rechargeable battery called for a crane boat at $3,500 per day. With such advantages, the oil and gas industry rapidly took to photovoltaics as their replacement.

"It saved us time and money, and that, of course, is better," a veteran navigation aids engineer told me some years ago. By the mid-to-late 1970s, hundreds of modules had been sold for use on the ever-increasing number of oil platforms. All the major oil companies — Amoco, ARCO, Chevron, Exxon, Texaco and Shell — were buying. Houston became the center of the photovoltaics industry.

Photovoltaics rescued the Saudi Arabian oil industry in the 1980s after a pipeline breach caused a major oil spill. Leaking oil fouled the country's principal aquifer, greatly alarming the Saudis — no resource was more precious than water in the desert kingdom. The king warned oil producers that unless they could guarantee no more spills, they would have to cease all operations.

Photovoltaics saved the day. Injecting small amounts of direct current electricity into the ground near pipelines and casements of wells would electrochemically destroy the corroding molecules, preventing future breaches. Had there been utility lines close by, a corrosion-proofing solution would have been simple. Unfortunately, as one oil executive observed, "You were talking about thousands of miles needing protection yet distant from any source of power." Placing photovoltaic modules to provide the needed direct current in small increments throughout the fields and pipe lines has kept the oil flowing, and not leaking, to this day.

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