Using Solar Power to Extract Oil

A California company has begun using solar power to squeeze oilout of an old oil field, flooding the underground rock with steam that comes from the sun’s heat instead of from burning natural gas.

The technique was tried in the 1980s by the Atlantic Richfield Company, butGlassPoint Solar, of Fremont, Calif., which cut the ribbon on a pilot project Thursday, says its plant is the only one of its kind now operating. Other companies have discussed such projects.

The process is cheaper than using natural gas, even at today’s depressed prices for that fuel, and trims the carbon footprint of the gasoline, according to GlassPoint. The pilot plant, completed in January in Kern County, is very modest, occupying less than an acre and producing only about a million B.T.U.’s per hour. But the company says it could quickly be replicated on a larger scale and could eventually displace 80 percent of the natural gas used to produce a barrel of oil.

GlassPoint said that at a full-size plant, its technology could produce steam at a cost of $3 per million B.T.U., compared with a market price of gas today of around $4 per million B.T.U.

Whether GlassPoint can get that far remains unclear. The company has no track record in the oil industry and has had three different business strategies in less than two years. Formerly known as CleanBoard, GlassPoint changed its name in October 2009 when it abandoned plans to use a solar-powered factory to make gypsum-based wallboard and said it would work with other wallboard manufacturers. Last year, it refocused its business yet again on using solar power to extract oil.

Rod MacGregor, GlassPoint’s chairman, said that burning natural gas to make steam for oil recovery was the largest single use of natural gas in California. About 40 percent of California’s oil is produced through such “enhanced oil recovery,” and the steam can account for as much as two-thirds of the production cost of such oil, according to GlassPoint.

The amount of steam needed to produce a barrel of oil varies according to the age of the field, but two million B.T.U. per barrel is typical.

Several companies use curved mirrors to focus the sun’s light to make steam, but on Thursday, GlassPoint unveiled a radically different design, one it says could also be used to make steam for electricity production.

In existing steam-electric solar plants with curved mirrors, the mirrors sit on heavy, rigid frames so that they will not be deformed by wind and can survive storms.

GlassPoint has built a greenhouse and suspended extremely lightweight mirrors from the skeleton of the building. The greenhouse is kept at higher air pressure than the outside environment, so no dust can come in, reducing the problem of cleaning the mirrors. A robot crawls across the glass roof to wash it. The wash water is collected for reuse, an important point since many old oil fields are in deserts.

A different solar energy company, BrightSource Energy, is building a solar steam system at a Chevron oil field project in Coalinga, Calif. It is supposed to go into service in the second half of this year.

Using solar power for oil recovery makes moot one of solar’s most difficult characteristics, its intermittency, according to John O’Donnell, vice president of GlassPoint. “You’re heating a cubic mile of rock,’’ he said. “It doesn’t matter if you heat it up a little higher in the day.’’

In the pilot project, the greenhouse is too far from the wellhead to send the steam by pipeline, so it is preheating the water, which will then be boiled by natural gas, reducing natural gas use but not as much as in a mature production facility.

Another advantage, according to Mr. MacGregor, is that the well is not fussy about steam quality, in contrast to a steam turbine that makes electricity, which demands constant temperature and pressure. “If there are hot water droplets in the steam stream, the rock won’t care, but a turbine certainly would,’’ he said.

Final Presentation

The following is a pdf in which we outline the process used to study projects going on in slums from all over the world and the players involved. The goal is that by organizing and categorizing this information, using a system of frames we created, designers will gain insight into how to best work in slums.

Final Presentation

Social Design Chart

We hope to continue to work to make the chart above an interactive website, hopefully in a partnership with an established social design organization.

case studies

Dan – Havana & Lima
Ryan – Zyrek & Philippines
Julia – Kibera & Thailand
Quillian – Mexico City & Dhaka City
Noel – Rio de Janeiro & Darava (Mumbai)
Josh – Newark & Soweto (Johannasburg)

Local:Global Organizations

Local : Global Networks

The urban population has been rising for decades. Within this, the population of urban slums have been rising exponentially. Without land ownership, these citizens’ rights are limited or even obsolete. With their power in numbers, they have begun to organize.

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Proposal for Moving our Research Forward

We agree our proposal will be a provocation (what if?) rather than conclusive instructions for practice (this is how it is). When posing the question this way, we seem to agree that the potential for new frameworks involves channeling a diverse set of organizations (of various scales, compositions, funding sources) to maximize effectiveness through cooperation. Additionally, we talked about focusing on a particular geographic area(s) to add depth to our research.

After giving this more thought, I am proposing a slightly modified direction. Taking into account our resources (in terms of time/expertise), I think we should consider how we can be most effective with our work. The prior post about Mumbai highlights the complexity of the issues we are engaging. It is difficult to speculate on how the specifics of slum redevelopment in Mumbai (or any other city) are transferable across cities, nations, continents. Essentially, they may be too specific to be meaningful at the larger scale – nevermind the effort required to do a truly effective case-study or find a novel collaboration between two organizations.

Despite this, there are certain paradigms present in the Mumbai example that are transferable or have value in the fact that they are distinct from practices in other contexts. I propose that we operate more at the level of paradigm rather than nitty gritty. More after the break…

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Slum Rehabilition Authority – Mumbai

Large-scale government coordinated efforts (led by Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority) are taking place in Mumbai to rehouse the vast population of slum inhabitants. The process is largely market-driven with government authorities selling land occupied by slums to developers for private development. Because of density pressures in Mumbai, this land has incredible value to private enterprises. In exchange for he land’s development rights, developers are required to provide new housing to existing inhabitants, while the remainder of the site is open to private market-driven use. Not surprisingly, this process is often plagued by corruption and unfulfilled promises, but the existence of a formal mechanism for addressing slums locally is worth our attention. More after the break…

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Globalization, Politics, Economy – The Context of Slums

“The root cause of urban slumming seems to lie not in
urban poverty but in urban wealth.”
– Gita Verma, Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and Their Saviours

I came across a series of papers addressing the ‘Culture of Open Networks.’ Although the majority of the writing addresses new media, a pair of essays by Mike Davis and Saskia Sassen examine the presence/evolution of slums in the contemporary city. The specific focus is Bangalore, but their analysis of ‘slum production’ is a helpful addition to our general research. As we look further at the opportunities available to us as architects/designers, it is important to remain cognizant of the larger socio/econ/poli structures influencing the physical context we see in front of us.

Here are the Davis/Sassen essays
Here is the full publication entitled In the Shade of the Commons: Towards a Culture of Open Networks