Oil and Solar Become Partners

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If you still need evidence that solar energy is a real, viable energy source, just take a look at what the oil and gas industry is investing in: solar.

Total (NYS: TOT) made a multibillion-dollar investment in SunPower (NAS: SPWRA) earlier this year, BP (NYS: BP) has its own solar division, and industry supplier General Electric (NYS: GE) is making a big bet on thin-film solar.

As of yesterday, solar energy will also be used to help extract oil from the ground in a sort of symbiotic relationship. A concentrated solar plant, built by BrightSource Energy, has been built at a Chevron (NYS: CVX) facility that will pump steam into an oil reservoir to allow more oil to be pumped out.

Concentrated solar is different from traditional modules built by Trina Solar (NYS: TSL) or Yingli Green Energy (NYS: YGE) . Instead of absorbing energy in the module and turning it into electricity, mirrors are used to bounce the sun's energy to a power tower, which then heats oil or some other liquid. In a nearby power-generating plant, this liquid heats water and is eventually used to power a turbine engine and generate electricity.

In the case of Chevron's Coalinga field, steam will be pumped into the reservoir to lower the trapped oil's viscosity and allow the company to pump more oil. If successful, this could expand the life of an oil field by making more oil economically recoverable. Normally, burning natural gas in a generator provides steam for this process. This new technology allows oil companies to generate steam without burning fuel.

A use for concentrated solar
Concentrated solar has had a hard time competing with traditional solar modules as prices have fallen, but this may be just the break the industry needs.

The irony this time around is that solar is helping make oil more efficient and economical. Maybe the oil industry needs solar after all?

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At the time this article was published Fool contributorTravis Hoiumowns shares of SunPower. You can follow Travis on Twitter at@FlushDrawFool, check out hispersonal stock holdings, or follow his CAPS picks atTMFFlushDraw.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Chevron and Total. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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