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Developing a cleaner mining industry

February 10, 2021

By Alexander Edstrom

Many of the essential resources needed to facilitate the energy transition must be mined. So, how can we improve mining’s energy transition?

Mining plays a unique and critical role in the energy transition. As the world looks to shift to cleaner sources of energy to combat the effects of global warming, it largely falls upon the mining industry to provide the materials for renewable energy infrastructure. The copper that produces wind turbines, the lithium in the batteries that power electric vehicles, the aluminum used to create solar panels—all of these are products of mining. The World Bank estimates that demand for these mined materials are expected to increase significantly in the coming years.

To work towards a more sustainable future, miners need to find a way to balance growth in their production of these materials with a reduction in their total carbon emissions. Spurred on by these pressures, the goal of achieving net zero mining operations is quickly becoming the new normal.

The ethical motivations behind committing to net-zero mining are clear: We all have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment.

What do we mean when we say net zero?

The purpose of net-zero emissions is to reduce our greenhouse gas contribution to as close to zero as possible, so that the amount we do release into the environment does not exceed the amount that we remove. Net zero mining is an umbrella term that refers broadly to decarbonization by transitioning to renewable sources of energy, improved water management, and the overall minimization of impacts to communities and the environment. In order to adopt net zero mining practices, owners need to become more conscious of how their mines are being designed—and operated—and commit to more sustainable practices.

Mining is an energy-intensive industry. In most mining operations, the second highest operational cost is energy. Infrastructure, vehicles, equipment, ventilation, hoisting—these are all significant consumers of energy. Although mining is necessary to produce renewable energy materials, mines cannot continue to be significant contributors of greenhouse gases. In order to meet the ambitious decarbonization goals outlined by climate change experts across the globe, miners need to find a way to balance a growth in their overall production with a reduction in their total carbon emissions.

Solar energy can be used to reduce a mine’s carbon footprint.

What’s the incentive for mine owners to commit to net zero?

The ethical motivations behind committing to net-zero mining are clear: We all have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment. But there is also a financial incentive. As climate change concerns become further integrated into the global conversation, consumers and investors expect companies to place greater importance on sustainability.  This may result in investors prioritizing greener mining projects or consumers paying a premium for greener production (or a penalty for poor sustainability performance).

Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) is known as the shorthand for the set of standards that investors use to measure a company’s social and environmental impact. One of these standards is a demonstrated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions according to science-based targets. It is becoming increasingly difficult for organizations to appeal to investors without demonstrating their commitment to ESG. 

As the world looks to shift to cleaner sources of energy to combat the effects of global warming, it largely falls upon the mining industry to provide the materials for renewable energy infrastructure.

What can miners do to reach net zero?

The good news is that there are a number of ways that mines can move closer to total decarbonization. Like all consumption-based problems, the first goal in net zero mining is to eliminate and/or reduce waste and energy demand. Renewable sources of energy, the same ones that mined metals create, can help offset a mine’s carbon emissions. Additionally, a focus on the reduction of total energy consumption though redesign of systems and processes, as well as the use of alternative technology, will result in a lower cost operation.

Wind and solar energy have grown increasingly popular at mine sites around the world, and prices have come down to make them a viable economic option. For mines that are located in harsh environments and remote areas where access to the power grid can be unreliable, renewables could be the solution. We’ve seen evidence of this in Chilean mines, which have harnessed wind and solar power to the benefit of both the mining industry and the general population. Currently, 14% of Chile’s energy comes from renewable sources and they plan to increase that to 70% by the year 2050 (as reported by Bloomberg).

Electrification of mining equipment is also quickly becoming a cost-effective alternative to the use of gas and diesel. Making the switch to an electric fleet has the added benefit of reducing the need for ventilation to keep the mine’s air clean. Reuters reported that Newmont’s Borden mine became the first “all-electric” mining operation since the 1980s when they made the switch to battery-powered vehicles and equipment. Not only did this allow them to cut costs and reduce carbon emissions, but it may also keep mine workers healthier in the long run.

Hydropower technology, particularly pumped storage, is a potential form of energy storage that may be ideal for mines. As the energy generated from wind turbines and solar panels isn’t always there when it’s needed, pumped storage hydropower balances energy demand with supply. How? By pumping water to higher elevations when demand is low, and releasing the water back down through turbines when demand is high. Not only can hydropower benefit operating mines, but it can also be utilized at closed or abandoned mines to power communities or other projects. The existing infrastructure at mine sites make them uniquely suited for pumped storage projects.

These are just some of the many paths toward net-zero mining. If miners hope to minimize negative impacts to communities and the environment, they must also evaluate the relationship between increased mine water demands and increased water scarcity as a result of climate change. For instance, Anglo American reports that approximately 75% of their sites are in water-constrained environments. This has led to the Water-Less mine initiative, which aims to achieve full recovery recycling. Additionally, mine owners can consider diversifying their portfolios to accommodate the increased demand in certain minerals, particularly those needed to construct renewable energy infrastructure.

Mine owners can also find inspiration from other industries that are on a similar journey to net zero emissions and play an equally important role in the energy transition.

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Mines that are located in harsh or remote environments can benefit from renewable sources of energy.

The world can’t wait

The impacts of climate change that we’ve witnessed around the globe are a glaring signal that the time for incremental changes is over. It’s clear that immediate and drastic action towards a zero-carbon future is necessary in order to save the planet. It’s equally clear that this future is not possible without mining.

The silver lining is that there is an opportunity for the mining industry to be a leader in emissions reductions. New strides and innovations in mining operations are occurring each day, providing more opportunities for mine owners to help the world meet its aggressive climate goals. We just need to keep net zero mining at the forefront of the conversation. So, let’s start having those conversations today.

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  • Alexander Edstrom

    As a water resources engineer, Alexander is known for his work using analytical tools and aiding in the development of engineering designs to manage water in mining operations.

    Contact Alexander
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