Solar’s sunny disposition has been rained on recently thanks to the bad bets the government has made on troubled companies like Solyndra. It seems as though the stormy solar weather isn’t letting up anytime soon. Chevron is using solar to coax oil from a California field. And across the pond in London, work has commenced on building the world’s largest solar bridge. Regarding the latter, maybe not such a bad thing, but one has to wonder if the solar industry needs a new global PR firm? One that can properly boost its image with a consistent message?
I digress. Let’s first dive into the slick, black irony of Chevron using 7,600 mirrors to track the sun, capture the rays and heat a water filled tank to make steam in order to get oil. While it’s not exactly the same process as fracking, it’s eerily similar. Here’s how a recent Forbes article describes the process:
The light heats the water into steam, which is then pumped through the oil field and deep down into the reservoir in order to loosen up and coax out heavy oil. Why use solar? Because heating water using sunlight is potentially much cheaper than heating it by burning natural gas, which is how it’s done in the oil rich San Joaquin valley now.
As the Forbes piece points out, this isn’t the first time a company has used solar to coax difficult oil from the earth. And this is really just the tip of the oil iceberg according toi Forbes:
The bigger opportunity is in the Middle East. Chevron is working with Saudi Aramco and the Kuwaiti government to apply heavy-oil knowhow to the 25 billion barrel Wafra field shared by the two countries. The plan now is to make steam in giant boilers; but there’s enough heavy oil and more than enough empty desert to build miles and miles of mirrors.
Complicating sustainability matters even more is that none of the aforementioned involved gambling taxpayer money. Which is exactly what the U.S. government did with Solyandra and what London is about to do by retrofitting a railway station that crosses the Thames river with more than 4,400 solar panels. The 6,000 square meters of panels on the revamped Blackfriars station is expected to generate enough energy to meet half its electricity needs. And here’s what Lindsay Vamplew, project director for Network Rail, said, taken from a BBC web site article:
“We’re creating a spacious, modern station and delivering a vastly improved train service for passengers, while at the same time installing London’s largest solar array to make Blackfriars more environmentally-friendly and sustainable.”
To put it bluntly, I am skeptical of the intentions of both Chevron and the city of London. Chevron is leveraging solar to get at oil in a more cost-effective manner. It sounds like London is using solar as a rouse to modernize a train station. Both initiatives smack of green washing. Am I wrong?