Solar Powered Oil: Contradiction or a New Way Forward?

CHARISSA ILUORE

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Photo by Ilia Isakov via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution.

In The Perfect Moral Storm, Stephen Gardner presents a number of thorny problems characterizing the phenomenon of climate change.1 This article will address two of them. First, only a select few, the more powerful nations, have the influence to implement substantial climate change policy on the global scale. But enacting such policies would work against these countries’ interests, curbing their economic productivity, so they often choose to look the other way. Second, when it comes to matters of the environment, the current generation’s actions have a disproportionate impact on future generations. Our children, and our children’s children, will most acutely feel the effects of our pollution and deforestation. These issues make it morally and practically difficult to take on the environmental challenges facing our planet. As a result, we must find creative solutions, one of which may be solar powered oil.

Through enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technology, solar panels can provide the energy needed to extract crude oil from the earth.2 At first glance, this method may seem counterintuitive. After all, our goal is to reduce or end the use of fossil fuels, not to become more efficient at drilling. But even if it is not a long-term fix, solar powered oil will help curtail emissions and make extraction more efficient in the interim. Solar powered oil addresses both of the major climate change problems outlined at the beginning of this article.

The use of solar enhanced oil recovery allows world powers to continue to drill, but in a more energy efficient and environmentally conscious manner. As compared to current drilling protocols, solar EOR produces “50 tons of emissions-free steam…each day and [saves] 47,000 BTUs of natural gas each year”.3 Developed nations have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which means big factories with billowing smokestacks and lots of crude oil. While this situation is untenable, it is unreasonable to ask these countries to immediately go oil-free. Solar EOR is a much more palatable compromise that allows business to proceed as usual, but still attempts environmental protection. It is an approach made even more appealing by its cost-effectiveness; solar powered efforts are less costly than EOR powered by natural gas.2 Both the oil and solar interests of the major world players can be represented.

Through enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technology, solar panels can provide the energy needed to extract crude oil from the earth.”

As a middle-of-the-road approach, solar EOR acknowledges the current generation’s dependence on gas and the future generations’ need for alternative power sources. It protects tomorrow’s atmosphere without destroying today’s fossil-fueled economy.  It provides a smooth transition from oil to solar, making a world without fossil fuels seem like it could one day become a reality.

Solar EOR is just one type of EOR technology, and carbon-burning versions of this process are already widely used. In 2015, about 30 million tons of US oil will be produced through EOR.2 By 2030, that number is expected to rise to 100 million tons.2 Solar EOR will help extract more oil to fuel our bustling cities. But is this a good thing?

More oil production means less incentive to switch to renewable sources of energy. However, with major players like China and the US signing on to reduce carbon emissions and environmental groups bringing increasing influence to bear on lawmakers, it seems likely that world leaders are beginning to understand the necessity of becoming independent from fossil fuels altogether.4 But even if these leaders are still years away from enacting the substantive policies needed, EOR is still worth pursuing. Climate change is both a vastly complex and a terrifyingly urgent problem. We cannot expect to solve it in a day, and we also cannot refrain from taking action until we have a perfect solution. EOR presents an opportunity to cut emissions now, with the energy infrastructure we already have in place. It would allow us to integrate our current fossil-fuels-based system with the technology of solar power. Essentially, EOR would buy us time in the ongoing struggle against climate change. And time is something we desperately need. Solar EOR is our chance to move towards a brighter, cleaner future.

Works Cited:

  1. Gardiner, Stephen Mark. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
  2. “Strange Bedfellows: Solar Power Meets Oil Drilling.” CNBC. N.p., 14 Sept. 2014. Web.
  3. McNicol, Chelsie. “A Bright Future for Solar EOR.” P2 Energy Solutions. N.p., n.d. Web.
  4. Nakamura, David, and Steven Mufson. “China, U.S. Strike Deal to Limit Greenhouse Gases.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.

Charissa Iluore is the Brevia Features editor, and can be reached at ciluore@college.harvard.edu.