Solar energy, one of the “hottest” new types of energy, is being tested as a way to produce to more oil. BrightSource Energy is building a 29-megawatt solar steam plant at a California oil field to increase oil production. 7,000 mirrors will focus sunlight on a boiler at the top of a 323-foot-tall tower. The water will be superheated to produce high pressure steam, which will be injected into the oil field to heat thick, viscous crude. The heated crude will flow better, meaning more of it can be recovered, more economically.

The use of steam to aid petroleum production is old hat—it’s a well-known technique called “cyclic steam injection.” What’s new is the use of solar power to produce the steam. Traditionally, steam is generated by burning natural gas or other fossil fuels. The main impediment to using solar thermal to produce steam is the comparatively low cost of natural gas. At present, it’s at a seven-year low, with gas futures below $3 per million BTUs. One study estimated that solar steam would normally require natural gas prices at $8.50 per million BTUs to be cost competitive.
However, the California solar-steam plant has several things going for it:
a. Chevron, the owner of the oil field, is also part owner of BrightSource Energy.
b. California oil is notoriously thick, making cyclic steam injection important; at the same time, this part of California is consistently sunny.
c. There’s been considerable volatility to natural gas prices; over four years, prices have swung 300 percent. A solar steam system provides Chevron a hedge against natural gas price fluctuation.

In the future, the Middle East—with huge, open areas baking under blistering sunlight—may be another logical place for solar steam systems to make oil production more efficient. As with any new oil extraction technology, the widespread use of thermal solar power to drive steam injection could significantly boost crude oil supplies in coming years, which could help push down the price of heating oil.

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