Solar steam helps pump oil in Coalinga


"It basically works by reflecting the suns energy from this field of mirrors up to a receiver on top of the 330 foot tower," said Jerry Lomax with Chevron.

There's a boiler full of water in the tower that is heated to 500-degrees. The water is turned into hissing steam which then shoots down pipes and into the surrounding oil wells on the ground.

Jerry Lomax of Chevron explains, "Here in Coalinga we have an oil field that's more than 100 years old and it's made up of oil that is called heavy so its real thick, syrupy type oil."

The steam makes that syrupy gunk flow and Lomax says it gets more life out of old oil fields. "It allows us to produce a lot more domestic oil in California that we wouldn't otherwise get out of the ground."

Using steam to extract oil isn't a new process. In many old oil fields the steam is generated in boilers fueled by natural gas, but natural gas is not always available.

"There are parts of the world where there is no natural gas infrastructure so the ability to use the sun to produce steam to get more oil out makes a whole lot of economic sense."

With nearly 8,000 mirrors on 100 acres, this is the largest solar steam facility in the world -- a joint venture of Chevron and BrightSource Solar.

It looked like whole town of Coalinga turned out for a tour and 5th grader Jaden Johnson had a question.

"Is it true right now that if a bird flies through that right now it will catch on fire?"

The Chevron engineer conducting the tour answered: "Yeah, if a bird were to fly through that it would catch on fire."

But, fried birds aside Jared said, "I think it's pretty amazing."

One thing this projects suggests is that even big oil companies are looking to save on energy costs.

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