GlassPoint Solar, a provider of solar steam generators for enhanced oil recovery, unveiled the world’s first commercial solar enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project in McKittrick, California.

In February GlassPoint Solar, a provider of solar steam generators for enhanced oil recovery, unveiled the world’s first commercial solar enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project at Berry Petroleum Company’s 21Z lease in McKittrick, California. The Kern County 21Z Solar Project is the only operational solar EOR project in the world. The project also incorporates GlassPoint’s Single Transit Trough (STT) technology, the first new solar thermal technology in decades.

Specifically designed for rugged oilfield environments, the GlassPoint solution encloses the solar technology in a unique glasshouse structure to deliver durable, low-cost solar steam in industrial environments. A barren half-acre in the middle of a California oilfield seems like an odd place to put a greenhouse. But this particular building has nothing to do with plants. Inside it is filled with flimsy mirrors–little more than curved sheets of aluminum foil, suspended by wires from the ceiling.

Motors pull the wires, adjusting the mirrors’ pitch to ensure they’re tracking the sun perfectly. The reflected rays are focused and concentrated to heat water inside a network of pipes, boiling it into steam that is continually injected down oil wells deep underground, loosening up and pushing out the gunky crude.

The 100-year-old oilfield, owned by Berry Petroleum, is near Bakersfield, Calif.; the glass house, built by GlassPoint Solar, was finished in February. Using the sun to get oil is more than just a neat trick, says GlassPoint Chief Executive Rod MacGregor–it’s good business. "Oil companies wouldn’t do it if it couldn’t make money," says MacGregor, 50.

MacGregor thinks solar can slash that cost, while enabling producers to extend the life span of aging fields and reduce carbon emissions to boot. Still, it hasn’t been an easy sell. GlassPoint put up an estimated $1 million of its own to build this first house, and Berry Petroleum is cagey about endorsing the technology, but MacGregor insists that when it comes to making steam, his technology can compete head-to-head with natural gas.

Pavel Molchanov, an oil company analyst at Raymond James, thinks so, too, figuring that after applying federal solar investment tax credits of 30% and assuming the system lasts for at least 25 years, GlassPoint’s steam could be as cheap as getting natural gas for $2.80 per mcf. In the Middle East, where the sun’s glare is fiercer, the implied cost will likely be about $2 per mcf. "Traditional energy executives often look at their solar counterparts as naive tree huggers," says Molchanov. "This might finally be a case where dirty energy and clean energy can work in tandem."

To get to that point MacGregor has to compete with the likes of BrightSource, which is putting up a 370-megawatt installation with 150,000 freestanding mirrors in the Mojave Desert as well as building a 100-acre steam-generating system for Chevron. BrightSource focuses its mirrors to reflect concentrated sunlight on a 300-foot-tall water-filled tower but won’t give any data on how cheaply it expects to generate steam.