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Oman's greenhouses to grow oil

Oman is a leader in EOR and will soon bring in a powerful friend to help pump more oil—the sun

The Beatles hit, "Here Comes The Sun", could be a daily anthem for the Gulf states. It might sound romantic, but within hours those first dawn rays of sunlight have been stoked up into fierce heat. The tendency over the years has been to find shelter from, rather than exploit, the ball in the sky. But a project in Oman is about to harness the sun's natural heat to reduce the cost of oil production.

Light crude oil that can be pumped to the surface easily presents no problems. But exploiting Oman's large reserves of heavy oil is another matter. Over the years, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) has become a leading player in enhanced oil recovery (EOR), the injection of steam into reservoirs to warm the heavy and viscous oil and make it flow more easily. The problem is that creating the steam requires the burning of large volumes of natural gas, meaning that the cost of EOR production (around $25 a barrel) is at least double that for light oil. Furthermore, gas is urgently needed elsewhere, for rising power generation and industrial needs, as well as for liquefied natural gas exports.

The idea of using the sun's rays to create steam is not new. In the early years of this century, PDO's technical director Amran Marhubi says, the company looked at solar steam generation and concluded that it wouldn't be possible because of Iran's environment: "essentially dust and early morning dew smudged the mirrors, making them very difficult to clear". The only impractical solution seemed to be to keep everything high off the ground, which would make mirror cleaning difficult.

This is when the US firm GlassPoint entered the scene. In 2012, it developed a pilot scheme at PDO's Amal West oilfield, keeping the reflective mirrors behind glass. The success of this led to the signing in 2015 of a $0.6bn contract to create Miraah (Arabic for mirror), a scheme involving 36 glasshouses that will generate 6,000 tonnes of solar steam a day. This means that EOR will rely on gas power only during the hours of darkness, resulting, GlassPoint claims, in an 80% saving of natural gas at the field.

Miraah is on schedule to start producing the first phase of steam in mid-2017. In Marhubi's opinion, Miraah is cutting-edge both because of its scale and its simplicity. "We'd actually all but given up on solar as a solution, though we were desperate for it. So the ground-breaking simplicity of saying, 'Let's just put them in greenhouses' is fantastic."

This article is part of a report series on Oman. Next article: Oman - plugging the deficit

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