Miraah shines on Oman

Having successfully completed a pilot project together in the Oman desert, GlassPoint and Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) are now working on one of the largest solar projects in history.James Henderson speaks to senior executives of both companies.

Rod MacGergor, CEO, Glasspoint
Rod MacGergor, CEO, Glasspoint
Amran Marhubi, Technical Director, PDO
Amran Marhubi, Technical Director, PDO

Miraah will be one of the largest solar plants in history, producing 1,021 MW of peak thermal energy. GlassPoint is building the project in partnership with Petroleum Development Oman, the largest oil producer in Oman and a joint venture between the government, Shell, Total and Partex. Miraah will use concentrating sunlight to generate 6,000 tons of solar steam each day. The steam will feed directly to PDO’s existing thermal EOR operations, providing a substantial portion of the steam required at the Amal oilfield in Southern Oman.

Miraah will save 5.6 trillion Btus of natural gas each year, which can be used for higher value uses in Oman boosting economic growth. The mega project dwarfs all previous solar EOR installations and is more than 100 times larger than the pilot project built by GlassPoint for PDO in 2012. The full-scale project will comprise 36 glasshouses, built in succession and commissioned in modules of four. The project is currently under construction with steam generation from the first glasshouse module projected to begin in 2017. Project completion will come in the following years and will span a total area of three-square kilometers, including supporting infrastructure.

By using solar instead of burning gas to make steam, Miraah will reduce CO2 emissions by more than 300,000 tons each year. These carbon savings are equivalent of taking 63,000 cars off the road.


Could you tell us a bit about how the new project was agreed?


Rod MacGregor: The pilot was very successful, and we delivered on time, under budget and with no lost time incidents. We also delivered more steam than was budgeted for, so off the back of that, PDO awarded us a much larger project and we’ll be delivering 6,000 tonnes of steam a day.
We have been working on the engineering since July, and we’ve recently broke ground on the project. It’s going to be a physically huge site, a 3km2 site, with two of those under glass. It will reduce emissions by 300,000 tonnes a year, which is more than every single electric car in America. In one project, Oman is reducing emissions by more than Tesla and Honda, Nisan and Chevvy together. That shows how much potential there is for projects like this.
It’s great to be working with PDO again, and we’re really excited about it.


What sort of reaction or feedback have you had from the industry?


RM: We were in discussions with companies from all around the world before the new project was announced, but since then, those levels have been stepped up. Everybody knows PDO is the leader in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technology, so the market is watching them to see what the company does. They floated a tender, selected the technology, ran the pilot and now have moved forward with a big project. Since then, discussions have really stepped up, not just in the Gulf, but around the world.


GlassPoint has previously worked on these types of projects all around the world. How difficult was it to bring that technology here?


RM: The main challenge that sticks out in my mind is that most of our projects in North America are close to a city; people come to work in the morning and the go home at night. If you forget something, you can either just bring it back the next day or go to a store down the road and buy it. In this project, as is the case with a number of projects in the Gulf, they’re in the middle of nowhere, and that means people can’t go home at night. It means you have to create work camps, so people can live and work in the middle of the desert, so you need food, air con, water, doctors – it’s a bit like a military operation and if you forget something, that’s too bad. It’s a ten hour drive from Muscat, so you have to make sure you have everything there, as having a load of people in the desert with nothing to do is not very cost effective. The logistical challenges are huge.

The second big challenge is the temperature as it is much hotter here. The glasshouse is a building, and it expands and contracts because of the heat. A glasshouse is made up of squares of glass; if that changes too much then the glass will fall out, and then the building falls down. So you have to be really careful with building expansion, and it caught us out a few times, and we learnt some lessons.
For example, normally in a steam system, if you have a valve or a meter, it’s screwed into the pipe, and when everything gets hot, it stays hot for a year. In a solar field, it gets hot and cold every day, so all the threaded connections started leaking. So what we had to do was make them welded connections. So all of these lessons are were learned on the pilot.
You have to contend with humidity, high winds, dust, sand, remoteness, challenges with water – it’s by far the most challenging conditions we’ve worked in.


What was the attraction with working with GlassPoint?


Amran Marhubi: Our first steam pilot was in 1984, so we’ve recognised the need for EOR for some years. Steam is a very attractive, particularly for our heavy oil fields in the south. We decided to go with Amal in 2007/08, because we’d be studying that field for a decade; it was time to studying and conclude that steam was the way to go.

What was always holding us back was gas, we recognised that was going to be a problem well before we has Amal was a project, and we started looking at solar in around 2003. We had people travelling all over the world looking at solar projects, and we concluded that we should give up as it was too expensive, the problems were too great, with sand and dust. The mirrors were going to have to be so thick just to withstand the wind. Then this came along.

When I first heard of it, there was a moment where I just thought ‘of course, how obvious is that?’ I just found it such an attractive, simple idea, which I think is innovation at its best. It’s not trying to solve a problem, it’s actually trying to get away from a problem. It was so exciting, and I think there was a real willing within PDO to make this work. We got the pilot up within a year, which is pretty much the best project I’ve ever seen in terms of delivery with PDO. Most projects you see delays, but there was a real desire to complete on time with this. A year in advance of 12/12/12, the date was set for commissioning. That says something about the enthusiasm the team had.


How was the decision made to go from the pilot to what is one of the biggest solar projects in the world?


AM:It was a big step to go from pilot to full scale and it took some doing. In the end it was always going to be about economics. You’re looking at the economics of solar vs gas vs heat recovery steam generation. But again, there was a strong will from both sides, and there was an emotional pull as well – but it had to make economic sense.


PDO is well-known for embracing new technologies, how much of that is down to the make-up of your oil fields?


AM: PDO by its nature has no choice but to embrace technology – this is not something we do for fun. If a technology is exciting enough, and there’s enough belief from the contractor – and that’s important because I need them to take part of the risk – then we will listen. I was at a workshop a few weeks ago with a lot of exciting technology and ideas being put forward, and I told my team that we were going to take four of five hours to listen and then we’d make a decision. Either it’s not for us, or we’ll start working with them, and within three or four months, we’ll have contracts on place. I think all companies need to start working like that. The worst thing is inaction.


When you’re working on ground-breaking projects, how important is it that the companies share common goals and have a similar philosophy?


They have to; the contracting strategy that we’ve adopted with Glasspoint is all about partnership. It isn’t about you tell us how much and we’ll just give you the money, it’s about working together. It begins and ends with the partnership, and we challenge each other along the way. We challenge them to keep costs down for us, and if they keep costs down, they keep more money. It wouldn’t have worked any other way, an EPC type contract wouldn’t have worked.
We’re immensely proud of what we’ve done, I’ve showed my own personal friends the pilot project. They walked away knowing they’d seen something different.


Glasspoint has shown it can implement its technology here in the GCC. How much potential is there for the company to do more in the energy sector?


RM: We’ve commissioned a study to find out how much energy is used by oilfileds and it’s about 10% of production, so that’s roughly 9mn barrels a day and more than half of that is thermal, so that works out as 4.5mn barrels of opportunity a day. We think this is just the beginning.


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