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Chevron taps solar-powered steam to get more oil

Chevron signs a deal with BrightSource Energy to create steam from solar thermal systems to improve oil exploration.

Solar power, it turns out, can mean more than just clean electrons and home hot water systems.

Chevron on Friday disclosed plans to use solar thermal technology from BrightSource Energy to enhance oil recovery from an aging well in central California.

BrightSource Energy's demonstration facility in Israel's Negev Desert, where an array of heliostats, or moving mirrors, concentrate light onto a tower to make steam. BrightSource Energy

The system will use 7,000 mirrors on Chevron-owned land to reflect light onto a tower to make steam. The steam will be pumped underground to heat up heavy oils and make them easier to extract, according to a Reuters report. Right now, Chevron uses natural gas to make steam.

Concentrating solar power has emerged as one of the most cost-effective solar technologies for utility-scale solar projects. Using mirrors or reflective troughs, sunlight from desert areas is concentrated onto a liquid that makes steam. In a power plant, that steam turns a turbine to make electricity.

Production on the plant in Coalinga, Calif., is slated to begin by the end of 2010, Chevron executives told Reuters. Chevron Technology Ventures, the company's venture arm, is an investor in BrightSource Energy.

BrightSource Energy's main business continues to be utility-scale solar. But another young solar company, Ausra, shifted its focus from building solar power plants to using its solar thermal technology to make a system for different industrial processes.