Why some solar companies are teaming with the oil and gas industry

Teaming up with the oil and gas industry might sound strange for a strong believer in solar power, but for David Jason, it’‍s just smart business. 

“The entire solar industry has kind of shunned the oil and gas industry,” Mr. Jason said. “I think they see it as a business, where a lot of people in solar see it as a cause. I see it as both.”

Mr. Jason is co-owner of Green Roads Energy, a solar distribution company in Mt. Lebanon. He has been involved in various solar projects in the region, and now he’s turning his sights on the oil and gas industry. 

The plan? To provide oil and gas companies with customized solar panels to generate power at remote well sites to reduce fuel costs and eliminate the need for diesel generators or transmission lines.

Mr. Jason is not the first to come up with this idea. The use of solar applications at drill sites is becoming much more common, according to Ken Johnson, communications director for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a nonprofit trade group based in Washington, D.C.

“I have friends in the oil and gas industry who have told me that solar has applications for them on-site,” Mr. Johnson said. “For years solar has been used extensively in rural areas so it’s really no surprise — although you could say it’s a little ironic — that the oil and gas industry is now embracing solar, too.”

Solar supporters say it is useful because it can be used for projects of various sizes. It is not dependent on the electric grid, could lower the risk of injuries linked to diesel generators and reduce a company’s carbon emissions. It could also cut down on the wear and tear on roads from trucks driving back and forth to replenish fuel.

Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas, which has operations in Pennsylvania, uses solar systems at its well sites to power meter equipment, control systems and digital chokes. Downtown-based EQT Corp. also uses solar to power its well-site equipment.

“It’s rare that we run electricity to a site, unless there is certain equipment that requires a much larger draw, like a pumping unit,” said Linda Robertson, an EQT spokeswoman. “We use solar to power electronics that have been installed on each well once our wells are turned into production.”

Day and Night Solar in Collinsville, Ill., has a patent-pending on-grid/off-grid, portable solar power generator that could help companies continuously pump gas or oil from wells.

The generator is the Sun Commander 8000, which originally was designed for disaster recovery. It was the recipient of the 2013 National Electrical Contractors Association Showstopper award and has also been showcased at the Pentagon. 

“The Sun Commander has a capacity to be able to run a portion or majority of their site off the solar aspect,” said Melinda Kirshaw, a spokeswoman with Day and Night Solar. “Anywhere they could use a diesel generator they could use one of these.”

But even with the promise of reduced fuel costs, it has been difficult to get oil and gas companies to bite. Early solar designs did not provide a reliable charge. As the technology has advanced — spurred by battery development — solar supporters say those problems have been addressed. 

“We found out it’s all about the design,” Mr. Jason said. “You have to design enough anatomy in the system for it to be able to make it through cold, short winter days when there’s not a lot of sunlight.”

But some oil and gas companies view solar power as competition.

Eric Casteel, president of SolarCast, a solar manufacturing and development company in Plum Borough, said one of his target business sectors is the oil and gas industry. He recalls the first time he spoke with a company.

“They said ‘You do know we’re an oil and gas company, right?’” he said. “I said ‘I know, we’re not trying to compete with you. We’re just trying to make you more profitable.’”

Mr. Casteel’s company offers an MP-4000 Mobile Power Platform. which uses photovoltaic panels and rechargeable batteries to generate power 24/7. It has been used by three well-site construction companies to power their offices, on-site tools and security systems.

But getting those companies to invest in solar wasn’t easy. SolarCast had to do its homework.

“There was a lot of work that had to be done,” Mr. Casteel said. “We started to attend some of the Marcellus Shale Coalition events and network and communicate directly with oil and gas companies in the area. In order to make this work we’re doing the upfront work and finding the construction companies that want to use to this technology.”

Mr. Jason also has attended oil and gas events.

“We’re the only solar company at the oil and gas expos,” Mr. Jason said. “I was actually made fun of by a member of the Obama administration for working with the oil and gas industry.”

While the rivalry is natural, some believe the two industries could benefit from working together.

“I do believe that the gas an oil industry realizes the ease of installing solar in areas where there are hard-to-reach places, where it doesn’t make economic sense to ship diesel fuel in and out,” Ms. Kirshaw said. “I feel they would use solar if it made an economic sense. It just comes down to the financials, really.”

Aside from finances, the use of solar power at well sites could also help reduce an extraction company‘‍s carbon footprint. 

“There’s some public opinion about these fracking sites,” Mr. Casteel said. “Using solar could help bring the green crowd around and help reduce some of the anxiety about that.”

Mr. Jason had similar thoughts.

“If it works well, why wouldn‘‍t we want to use something that eliminates all greenhouse gases?” he asked. “The oil and gas industry isn’t going away. If I can make it environmentally safer and put food on the table for my family, that’s a win-win.”

Madasyn Czebiniak: mczebiniak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak 

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