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Chevron Harnesses Sun in the Oil Patch

A unit of Chevron Corp. and Oakland, CA-based solar developer BrightSource Energy have partnered on a plan to use solar thermal technology in a California oilfield to produce steam for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). BrightSource officials told NGI initial plans have been made to have a solar-thermal operation in place at a Chevron oilfield by the end of next year.

Chevron, which is one of a list of blue chip investors in BrightSource, will reportedly begin with a pilot program applying the solar firm's "power tower" technology using thousands of small mirrors called heliostats to reflect sunlight onto a boiler atop a tower to produce high-temperature steam. The steam will be injected to help produce more of the traditionally thick crude oil in California's central San Joaquin Valley.

While variations of solar and other renewable resources have been used to produce electricity used in oilfield production, this is one of the first proposals to apply it to steam-based EOR operations.

The multi-national oil giant revealed its plans with BrightSource earlier in August at a meeting of the Coalinga, CA, City Council, noting that construction on the project at a nearby oilfield would start before the end of this year. A test will be conducted first before the full 29 MW solar thermal project is developed next year by BrightSource Coalinga officials were told.

About 40 miles north of Bakersfield in the lower, oil/gas-rich parts of the central valley, Chevron Energy Solutions already has collaborated with Energy Conversion Devices Inc. to build a 500 kW, six-acre solar photovoltaic array to help power oilfield operations. Chevron called the project a showcase for the technology, which could have rooftop applications.

Last April Chevron's alternative energy unit helped the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority install a $16.5 million, 1.2 MW solar-powered system at its transit facility. The project was billed as a public-private partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Sempra Energy's Southern California Gas Co., the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Bank of America, which arranged the financing.

The newest proposal to apply BrightSource's solar thermal technology to EOR calls for a 323-foot tower with 7,000 mirrors spread over about 100 acres at Chevron's oilfield. The installation is designed to generate the equivalent of 29 MW solar thermal power from which the steam is to be injected in the oil production operation, which normally relies on gas-fired boilers for steam.

BrightSource originally signed a 900 MW solar thermal deal with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) in April last year. Early this year Southern California Edison Co. announced a "world's largest" contract, or series of seven contracts, amounting to 1,300 MW. More recently, PG&E signed a deal with BrightSource, supplanting its 2008 contract with a series of deals totaling 1,310 MW of solar thermal power.

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