Once the stuff of science fiction, solar energy is now used to power everything from office buildings to homes to satellites and, yes, even an aircraft. Known as a renewable, low-cost, and emission-free source of energy (at least to us here on Earth), solar power is highly regarded for its eco-friendliness. And now this green energy source is being used in the production of a not-so-green energy: oil.

Yes, you read right. On October 3, Chevron, the second largest oil company in the U.S., began extracting crude oil from its field in Coalinga, California, using a 29-megawatt solar-thermal power plant.

How greener oil works

The plant uses 3,822 mirror systems (called heliostats) to follow the movement of sun and reflect focused sunlight onto a solar tower. The solar tower then uses the captured sun power to heat a boiler until steam is produced. That steam is then injected underground to heat the heavy crude oil and reduce its viscosity, thereby making it easier to bring the oil to the surface. To put it simply, it enhances production.

Why it’s green(er) oil

This method of heating heavy crude oil with steam is known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR), and was traditionally powered by natural gas. But burning natural gas produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, which, as you know, aren’t very good for our environment.

By replacing the use of natural gas with solar power, oil production just got a little bit greener.

What does it mean for you?

Can steam and mirrors make oil production greener? Can oil ever be green? Weigh in and let us know what you think.

Related links

The history of solar energy (PDF)
NASA’s solar-powered aircraft

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about Anne

If variety is the spice of a copywriter’s life, then Anne’s career at Esurance was akin to sassafras. From 2010 to 2014, she added a touch of zest to topics ranging from cleaning with baking soda to becoming a first-time homeowner.