A strategic sea change is occurring regarding the ways and means mining companies acquire and use energy. Along with growing external pressure to enhance environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility, sharply falling costs and improved performance are leading the world’s leading mining multinationals to invest in solar, other renewable energy resources and smart, clean technology to power their operations.
A total of some 943 megawatts (MW) of renewable power generation capacity is up and running on mining sites worldwide, and more is on the way, according to a new research report from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) Sunshine for Mines program. “[R]enewables for mines is now firmly established as a critical market segment for the global renewable energy industry. Industry experts predict continued growth for this sector as mines face increasing carbon exposure and energy cost pressures,” Sunshine for Mines states.
RMI Sunshine for Mines projects mining sector renewable power capacity will grow to more than 1.4 GW globally in the next five years. “Renewable power will be a must for any new mining project with an appropriate life, as well as, an attractive option to add to an existing mine,”commented Michel Carreau, director of energy at Hatch, an international mining and energy engineering and consulting company based in Montreal. Solar Magazine spoke with RMI Sunshine for Mines’ Director of Mining Projects Paolo Natali and Program Associate Patrick Molloy to gain further insight into mining companies’ renewable energy drive.
A perfect storm
Breaking out the 943 MW of renewable power capacity installed at mine sites, 352 MW is solar PV, 39 MW is solar thermal and 552 MW is wind power generation capacity, according to RMI Sunshine for Mines’ global ranking of renewable energy investments by mining companies, the first of its kind.
“We are seeing a ‘perfect storm’ brewing around renewables,” Russell Blades, Director of Energy and Climate Change for Barrick Gold, commented.
RMI launched the Sunshine for Mines program a couple of years ago with the aim of working with mining industry leaders to “decarbonize” their operations. Implicit in the program’s name, program team members started out assisting mining companies assess solar energy resource potential and the feasibility of taking advantage of that what is effectively a perpetual, global “green” energy resource. The program has been expanding and RMI Sunshine for Mines is working with a growing roster of mining companies around the world to evaluate and invest in deployment of solar, wind, other local, renewable energy power generation and energy storage systems at legacy, as well as existing, mine sites. More broadly, RMI Sunshine for Mines is consulting with and advising mining companies regarding ways to achieve carbon neutrality.
Some substantial hurdles stand in the way, but the potential to do so is vast, Natali said. Having set long-term sustainability goals, mining companies increasingly see investing in on-site renewable energy and energy storage systems as a means of taking concrete steps to achieve them.
“It’s a question of where to start. In a building, you might ask does it make sense to invest in LED lighting or upgrading heating and cooling systems. It’s similar in mining – you have crushers, grinders and a variety of other types of electrical equipment...It’s about acquiring a thorough and comprehensive understanding of renewables in the context of mining, and more broadly, as a function of sustainability,” Natali told Solar Magazine.
Advancing along a path of discovery
RMI Sunshine for Mines has expanded geographically and across the mining sector since its founding, Molloy explained.
“It’s been a bit like embarking on a path of discovery – identifying the key problems and challenges, internal and external, but now a wide ranging sense of how to take this forward is pretty evident,” Molloy said.
Molloy cited a mining-related solar PV development project in Chile launched back in 2015 as an example. At that time, San Franciso, California-based renewable energy project developer Pattern Energy announced it had begun construction of the 122 MW Conejo Solar PV power project some 30 kilometers (18 mi.) east of the town of Taltal in Chile’s Atacama Desert. An affiliate of Antogagasta Minerals, Minera Los Pelambres signed a a 22-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Conejo Solar to off-take approximately 65 percent of the project’s output. An interconnection to the Sistema Interconectado Central (SIC) transmission system located on public lands owned by the government of Chile under a long-term concession will deliver emissions-free electricity to the mine.
“We are expanding into the solar power market with one of the largest solar projects in Latin America,” said Pattern Development President and CEO Mike Garland. “Conejo Solar was originated by Pattern Development, demonstrating that solar power is an excellent fit with our wind business that allows us to leverage our extensive development expertise.”
Natali mentioned Munich and Johannesburg-based Cronimet Power Solutions, a subsidiary of Cronimet Mining, and its hybrid solar PV-diesel power systems solutions as another illustration. Marking what’s billed as the world’s first utility-scale, solar PV-diesel hybrid power system, Cronimet in 2012 installed 4,170 solar panels over a four-month period in building a 1 MW power generation facility at a mine site in Thabazimbi, South Africa.
The hybrid solar-diesel facitlity is projected to produce 1.8 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of emissions-free electrical energy per year, while at the same time displacing more than 450,000 liters (118.9 thousand gallons) of diesel and 2.000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Cronimet Power Solutions benefits from having backing from its parent corporation, Cronimet Mining, a global mining, metals and trading group, and the Solea group of companies, which have developed and built more than 300 MW of PV capacity in South Africa, Canada and Europe, according to company information.
Five good reasons
Broadly speaking there are five good reasons mining companies should invest in on-site renewable energy generation capacity this year, RMI Sunshine for Mines highlighted in a recent blog post:
- The price is right.
- Creative financing solutions exist.
- The technology is ready.
- The employees want it.
- Owners can use renewables to hedge against risk and diversify their business.
Working with BHP, the world’s second largest mining corporation, RMI Sunshine for Mines developed a proprietary, turnkey methodology to evaluate prospects for solar, wind, other alternative energy and energy storage resources, technologies and systems to be deployed at decommissioned BHP mine sites across Canada and the US. The results were very encouraging: RMI and BHP identified significant potential for redevelopment and a clear subset of sites with a collective potential of over 0.5 GW (gigawatts).
Looking ahead, Natali told Solar Magazine RMI Sunshine for Mines sees promise in working with mining companies to convert and re-purpose coal mine sites in the U.S. as renewable energy generation facilities. “Right now we’re focusing on what we have in hand – a pipeline of project activities at existing and redevelopment of legacy mine sites. In the US, we’re working on projects linked to coal mines marked for closure – re-purposing them so as to create generation resources that could replace the coal resource.”
RMI Sunshine for Mines expects we’ll see much more in the way of renewable energy investments by mining companies in this and coming years. “There’s ‘push’ from many angles,” Natali said. “The big one is economics, which are more and more favorable, especially at more remote and off-grid sites. Renewables also offer a very stable source of energy.”
Adding to the push for renewables, the science of climate change is increasingly accepted within the mining sector, Natali pointed out.