Chevron will tap sunlight to help it get more oil out of the ground in California. The company will partner with BrightSource Energy—a solar start-up that Chevron helps fund—to develop 29 megawatts of thermal power from the sun's rays.

The idea is simple (and ancient): use mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays onto a water tank, turning said water to steam. The steam can then be used to turn a turbine and produce electricity or, in this case, pumped down a well to loosen heavy oils.

The plant slated for the Coalinga Oil Field near Fresno will employ at least 3,000 mirrors to concentrate light on a more than 300-foot tower with water inside. Chevron hopes it will be fully operational by the end of next year. "The only problem we have is when it's cloudy," said Sergio Hoyos, a business developer at Chevron Technology Ventures, at the city council meeting last week where the plan was unveiled, according to Reuters.

As it stands, oil companies typically burn natural gas to produce the steam necessary to get the oil flowing, and that method will still likely be the case at night and for most of the day. But this trial plant will enable Chevron to determine whether such solar thermal projects might be appropriate for other oil fields.

Similar efforts are underway with other solar thermal companies: Ausra helps supply steam to a coal-fired power plant to boost efficiency in Australia, and the Electric Power Research Institute is studying the technology for use in fossil-fuel burning power plants.

Of course, BrightSource will also likely be busy building the 2.6 gigawatt's worth of solar thermal power plants it has announced contracts for in California alone. The company is a revived form of Luz, which built the world's first operating solar thermal power plants near Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1980s before becoming defunct.

There's no word on how much the oil-heating solar thermal facility will cost to build this time around, but perhaps this is why an oil company would invest in a solar power resurrection. After all, with climate legislation looming, carbon dioxide emissions saved are carbon dioxide emissions turned into cash.

Image: Courtesy of BrightSource