Concentrated solar power is alive and well, but instead of producing electricity, it's being used for the production of steam at gigawatt scale to raise heavy oil from depleted wells.

Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the largest producer of oil and gas in Oman, and VC-funded GlassPoint just announced a $600 million deal for the largest solar plant on the planet. The 1,021-megawatt "Miraah" project is a turnkey system that will be owned and operated by PDO, generating 6,000 tons of steam per day to coax viscous oil from Oman's Amal oil field.

"The project will be fully financed by PDO," Raoul Restucci, managing director of PDO, told reporters, according to Reuters. 

GlassPoint’s greenhouse-enclosed parabolic solar troughs use mirrors to focus sunlight on a tube containing water, yielding high-pressure steam, which is injected into an oil reservoir to heat heavy oil. The greenhouse shields the mirrors from the desert elements, and an automated washing system cleans the glass. One of the cost drivers in a traditional concentrated solar power (CSP) project is building the system to withstand wind -- strong foundations require more steel and concrete. GlassPoint's CSP system is enclosed in an agricultural greenhouse, which allows for cheaper, thinner mirrors and "half the amount of steel and aluminum" of an outdoor solar field, according to the company.

The next-largest CSP plant in the world is the 370-megawatt Ivanpah plant. The largest photovoltaic power plant in the world is the 579-megawatt Solar Star project in California.

Last year, GlassPoint received a $53 million investment led by Oman's largest sovereign wealth fund, the State General Reserve Fund, along with the venture arm of Royal Dutch Shell and its original syndicate of venture firms: RockPort Capital, Nth Power and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, bringing the startup's equity funding to more than $80 million since its founding.

"The oil industry is the next major market for the solar industry."

Thermal enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is a real-world, non-subsidized application in which CSP could competitively replace natural gas in an enormous emerging market.

Oil field operators already use vast amounts of natural gas to draw difficult-to-access heavy oil from depleted wells via thermal EOR. This technique has been used for decades and accounts for more than 40 percent of U.S. EOR production, mostly in California, according to the DOE.

GlassPoint VP of business development John O'Donnell said, "The energy business uses lot of energy to make energy. Globally, it takes a quarter of a barrel of oil to produce [a barrel of] heavy oil -- and two-thirds of the remaining oil is heavy oil."

Oman uses 23 percent of its own expensive natural gas in its oil fields, primarily for thermal EOR. "Up to 14 percent of all the gas burned in California is burned in Kern County, while Kuwait will burn more gas for EOR than for electricity," said the CEO. That gas might be better used for power generation, desalination, petroleum products or export. The Economist claims that the amount of gas used in gas-fired thermal EOR means that "a barrel of Californian heavy oil gives the stuff from Canada's tar sands a run for its money in terms of associated greenhouse-gas emissions."

O'Donnell added, "The IEA points out that two-thirds of all primary energy use by humans is in the form of heat. The solar industry has been focused on the one-third of electricity -- but has made little penetration in the remaining two-thirds."

The VP noted that the site is a 500-mile drive from the nearest town and 100 miles from the Yemen border. But despite those logistical and supply-chain challenges, he suggested that the century-old agricultural greenhouse industry has already established an efficient and commoditized supply chain for much of its bill of materials.

According to the VP, construction starts this year, with official first steam in 2017. He stressed that there is an assembly-line character to the construction of the site -- the project uses 36 of the company's standard block solar steam generators, commissioned in groups of four. The total project area will span 3 square kilometers.

The CEO called it a "perfect solar EOR storm,” with light crude in many Middle East fields largely played out, a shortage of natural gas, along with plenty of sun." In a previous interview, he noted, "It would not be unusual for a thermal EOR [system] to be in the 3-gigawatt range."

But is it green?

GlassPoint CEO Rod MacGregor pointed out that oil companies are "heating a cubic mile of earth." With gas.

The 1.7 quadrillion Btu of gas used to power thermal EOR, GlassPoint's CEO noted, "could power six of the largest states."

So, yes, this is about oil. But until humanity kicks the oil monkey off its back, solar EOR provides some harm reduction. 

As the CEO notes, solar EOR can reduce an oil field’s natural gas consumption by up to 80 percent. (The system is direct water to steam, and in the case of GlassPoint, the water used is "produced water" from the well operations. This "horrible stuff," as the CEO referred to it, is used in the system with minimal cleanup.)

The CEO called it "a $115 billion heavy-oil business opportunity" and "a massive opportunity to deploy solar in the oil industry."

Pictures of an earlier EOR project, a 7-megawatt pilot system, developed with PDO, Oman's largest oil company: