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Could solar thermal tech find a new home helping the Middle East extract oil?

The past few years have not been easy for the concentrated solar power (CSP) industry as the plunging cost of solar panels made the technology less and less competitive. To add to the headaches some of the early installations failed to produce the amounts of power that had been promised. Many plans for solar thermal farms were suspended or cancelled.

Some hope had been hung on the ability of solar thermal to include some energy storage in the form of molten salt. One of the disadvantages of solar PV is that it requires grid storage, which raises the cost of solar as a technology alternative to natural gas, coal and nuclear.

The bottom line has been that the unexpected competitiveness of solar PV has people asking how to make CSP relevant to a modern energy economy. In that vein, what about harnessing solar thermal power to extract heavy oil via enhanced oil recover (EOR) technology? Greentech Media reports that GlassPoint Solar just picked up $53 million in investment from Oman’s largest sovereign wealth fund and other investors that include Royal Dutch Shell’s VC arm.

Right now oil field operators use lots of natural gas and inject steam into depleted oil fields to recover oil that otherwise would be inaccessible. Using natural gas in EOR also further increases the carbon footprint of fossil fuels.

GlassPoint’s technology uses the typical parabolic solar trough mirrors to concentrate sunlight and convert water to steam. This high pressure steam is then injected into an oil reservoir in order to recover oil. The startup is focused on the Middle East, both because of ample solar radiation and because there’s less natural gas in that region, which is typically needed to fuel EOR.

GlassPoint won’t be alone as other embattled CSP companies attempt to find new applications for their technology like enhanced oil recovery. Helping extract oil out of the ground isn’t exactly the green technology dream. But it may allow CSP technology to survive another day and reduce dependence on natural gas for oil extraction. Because even though oil is likely to get more and more expensive, global dependence on the fossil fuel isn’t going away.