The Power of Abandoned Oil Wells

The Power of Abandoned Oil Wells

Reuters reports there are more than 3.2 million “abandoned” wells in the United States. That breaks down to roughly 2.6 million oil wells and 0.6 million gas wells. What if these wells could be refitted and repurposed to provide renewable power such as solar or wind?

Abandoned wells are usually properly plugged to prevent any oil or gas from inadvertently escaping. Then, the area is regraded to match the surrounding environment. Some wells, though, are orphaned. They are simply left behind for one reason or another, often because the owning company has gone bankrupt. It is then up to the state, and ultimately, the taxpayers to have the site properly taken care of. 

Solar power could light up old wells

RenuWell Energy Solutions in Canada believes old wells can be renewed. Abandoned well sites already have most of what is needed, such as access roads, graded well pads and electrical infrastructure, thus erasing much of the start-up costs. They could also employ local residents by providing training for site maintenance, and residents would benefit by consuming the power being produced.

The plan doesn’t just cover repurposing abandoned and orphaned sites. The access roads and other infrastructure of active wells can also be taken advantage of. RenuWell would like to help lower oil and gas well carbon footprints by providing low-cost, emission-free power for operating the rigs. This is not unheard of. 

Renewables in the field, a bright idea

IHS Markit, an information and analysis company, has been keeping track of fields using renewable energy to power their systems here in the U.S. It hasn’t been hard to keep count. The numbers have been relatively small, but they are multiplying, especially in the last few years. From 2000 through 2017, only 15 fields were using renewable power. In the last three years, that number has grown to 45. Solar energy is the power of choice for these fields, but hydropower and wind aren’t far behind.

That number is expected to continue climbing. IHS Markit feels the numbers would already be more significant except for several things, the same things, it seems, holding renewable power back from wider spread use all over the world:

  • Cost relative to traditional energy sources
  • The development of supply chains in remote regions
  • Energy storage for intermittent renewable power

Liability is the biggest issue

Ottawa has allotted $1 billion to Alberta for the clean up of abandoned well sites. None of that is earmarked for the RenuWell Project. Liability seems to be the main roadblock. Juli Rohl, an advocate for repurposing sites for solar power, said, “These startups that are doing new technology, which could be the ones that are re-purposing it, don’t have the ability to take on huge amounts of liability right off the get-go. And the operators, who are holding this liability, want to get it off their books. So, sorting out who has the liability and how that’s handled in the future is the biggest question and the biggest challenge for this, because you’d want to be able to do it responsibly.” She also said that attaining federal funding could be a way out of the dilemma by restoring the sites enough to remove a great deal of the liability.

With so many global energy companies proposing lower and net-zero emissions, solar and wind power at well sites might become a common sight.