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Solar energy and oil find a way to work together

The Mount Signal solar project
The Mount Signal solar project

In unlikely bedfellows news, an oil production firm and a solar energy supplier have struck up an alliance in California to work together.

Aera Energy, one of California’s largest oil and gas producers, and GlassPoint Solar have announced plans to build one of the state’s largest solar energy projects to power oil field operations.

The project, called Belridge Solar, will have two parts, an 850 megawatt thermal facility to produce 12 million barrels of steam to help extract oil, and a 26.5 megawatt photovoltaic facility to generate electricity. Aera Energy wants to reduce onsite natural gas usage and reduce its carbon emissions from pumping oil.

“We are proud to be an active part of California’s low carbon future and lead the industry by adopting bold solutions to deliver valuable energy, more efficiently while protecting the environment,” Aera CEO Christina Sistrunk said in a statement.

“By harnessing the power of the sun to produce oil, oil operators can efficiently reduce emissions using advanced technology, creating long-term benefits for the local economy and environment,” Sanjeev Kumar, GlassPoint SVP for the Americas, said in the same statement.

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!,” said Bill Murray’s character, Dr. Peter Venkman, said in the movie Ghostbusters.

An oil company working to reduce carbon emissions, and a renewable energy company supplying energy to a fossil fuel company. Partisans in both camps are spinning themselves up with outrage.

Yet this is what our all-0f-the-above energy future should look like, and it is consistent with trends around the world. Practical analysis should deliver the best energy choice for a particular application, not parochial interests.

Yes, the oil extracted by Aera will release carbon dioxide and worsen climate change, but we can’t eliminate oil production entirely, so we might as well produce oil as cleanly as possible.

Yes, oil companies can acknowledge that their product is damaging the planet without going bankrupt.  In fact, cleaning up oil field emissions is the best way to counteract criticism from environmentalists who drive gasoline-powered cars to protest pipelines.

Other countries don’t see the contradiction. Saudi Arabia wants to install solar and nuclear power so that they don’t have to burn oil and natural gas to produce electricity. After all, those products can be exported for a profit, so its smart to reduce domestic consumption.

This is the same reason Iran wants a nuclear power program, but that’s another column.

Unfortunately, too many people in the energy industry see the competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy sources as a zero-sum game. Close examination of the GOP tax bill passed in the Senate on Saturday night reveals how lobbyists obtained many giveaways to fossil fuel companies while inserting measures that crush renewable companies.

For the time being, there is a need for all of these forms of energy. We cannot continue to warm the planet at the current pace without making life on Earth dangerous and miserable. We need to reserve fossil fuel use for where we have no other options.

Most of all, though, we need our energy companies to work together and not against each other. In the case of Aera, it makes good business sense to switch to solar power. And I imagine if more energy companies took the time to do the analysis, they would reach the same conclusion.

This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle. 

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