Yes, you read that right. The fossil fuels sector is building the largest solar field in all of California and one of the largest such fields in the world.
Not billionaire anti-industry activist Tom Steyer. Not the Sierra Club, which has spent untold millions on lawsuits and PR efforts to bash the oil and gas sector. Not anyone affiliated with the Keep It In The Ground movement, which has sought to undermine the industry at every turn. Aera Energy, a company jointly held by ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, is building California’s biggest solar energy complex. By a mile. For a sense of the scale, check out this video by Aera and news coverage from local TV station KERO 23.
As reported by the Washington Post, ABC, Clean Technica and virtually every energy media outlet, Aera has contracted GlassPoint Solar to build a solar installation at the Belridge oil field in Kern County, California – just west of Bakersfield. Belridge produces 75,000 barrels of oil per day.
The solar field will support an estimated 500 construction jobs and cover 770 acres with solar panels.
The project will produce both electricity and steam used to pump oil at Belridge. The steam will be produced by a solar thermal facility capable of producing 850 megawatts (MW) of thermal energy, using a combination of glass panels and mirrors to focus sunlight on pipes of water, producing steam that will be used in place of imported natural gas in oil production. Eliminating 4.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas currently used to pump oil will reduce carbon emissions at the Belridge by 376,000 metric tons each year. That’s the equivalent of taking 80,000 gas-powered cars off the road.
The introduction of solar energy at the field is just the latest example of how renewables and natural gas can work in tandem. The solar project will provide the bulk of the energy needed at Belridge for maintaining operations, but natural gas is there to kick-in when the weather isn’t cooperating. Natural gas has long been seen by many industry observers – including top scientists at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory – as an enabler for renewables, not a rival source of energy. Integrating natural gas and renewables is a proven way to reduce emissions.
But the use of steam to produce oil isn’t all that Aera and Glass Point will be accomplishing. The field’s electricity will come from solar panels as well – 26.5 MW of solar panels, bringing the total power generation capacity of the project to 876.5 MW. The Belridge field will produce over 40 percent more energy than the next two biggest solar projects in California, which are the Solar Star installation (579 MW) and the Topaz solar field (550 MW). Upon completion, Belridge will be the world’s fourth largest solar project measured by capacity – and it will be the biggest one in the entire United States.
California is committed to combating global climate change and the state’s oil and gas industry shares this commitment. Aera CEO Christina Sistrunk credited Jerry Brown’s accomplishment of extending the cap-and-trade program, saying it made the Belridge solar project possible:
“We need some level of what I would call regulatory and legislative stability to be able to fund projects that really need a couple of decades worth of certainty to be economic. The extension of that [cap-and-trade] program really underpinned our ability to make this long-term commitment.”
Aera’s solar partner is also committed to ensuring its projects are environmentally beneficial. Not satisfied with simply reducing greenhouse gas emissions by adding solar energy to the grid, Glass Point fully encloses its facilities and frosts the windows of its greenhouses so that birds and other animals are protected. They also recycle most of the water used on site.
Contrary to anti-industry rhetoric, the energy industry – both oil & gas and renewables companies – is doing its part to embrace climate-friendly practices and solutions to the environmental challenges we face. Together, the renewables and fossil fuels sectors can conquer today’s climate challenges while providing the energy we need to power and move the world’s sixth-largest economy in California, and set an example to be followed around the world.