The energy industry has traditionally been divided into two opposing camps: the fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas; and the renewables, which include solar, wind, hydro and biofuel-derived energy. And while the two camps often compete with each other, that relationship may soon change.
In a growing global trend, major oil producers turn to renewable energy to help reduce the environmental impact of the extraction process. A case in point is the Belridge oil field near Bakersfield, California, one of the largest and oldest oil producers in the country. The field’s operator, Aera Energy, recently announced its partnership with GlassPoint, a manufacturer of solar-powered steam generators for the oil and gas industry. The partnership will result in California’s largest solar energy project, which will supply the Belridge oil field with carbon-free steam and electricity necessary for the extraction process.
Consisting of an 850 megawatt solar-generated steam facility and a 26.5 megawatt photovoltaic facility that will generate electricity, the project will save more than 376,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which is equivalent to taking 80,000 cars off the road.
“The marriage of renewable energy and other industries was predictable,” says Walter Christmas, Wind Energy Technology program instructor at Ecotech Institute. “When clean power plants can be built and operated for less cost than paying retail electricity bills, facilities that are especially electric-power hungry can reduce their cost by installing wind and solar power production equipment.”
Moreover, Christmas notes that renewables could provide an opportunity for many refining operations to be permitted to operate in a carbon-tax future. “If the United States or certain states adopt a carbon tax,” he says, “then industries that produce large amounts of carbon dioxide will see deep cuts to their profitability.”
The issue is especially pertinent in states such as California that already experience high levels of air pollution. As a result, turning to renewable energy to offset their own carbon footprint may be the best option for these types of facilities to remain open.
Christmas notes that a similar trend of innovative renewable energy implementation can be seen across industries: “In recent years, gold mine operators in Bolivia have been assessing the quality of wind resources on the Altiplano, an area in west-central South America where the Andes are at their widest. The idea is that the lighting, ventilation and other electricity needs for deep mining operations can be powered by wind. Currently, these mines meet their electricity needs by trucking in millions of gallons of diesel fuel from far away.”
Many industry giants, including Tesla, Google, Apple and General Motors have also invested heavily in solar and wind power plants in order to supply electricity to their own facilities.
According to Christmas, the determining factor for the viability of renewables being paired with traditional power plants will ultimately come down to cost.
He explains: “A coal power plant produces electricity that, in addition to powering our homes, also powers its own operations. For years, the cost of recirculating produced electricity within that coal power plant was cheaper than the long-term levelized cost of renewables. However, as wind and solar energy continues to become cheaper and is coupled with other incentives, we will see more and more facilities begin to implement these technologies.”