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The mining energy crisis: Are the industry's net zero targets too ambitious?

September 13, 2022

By Wayne Peel

We are experiencing one of the biggest paradigm shifts in energy production of our lifetime. What role do renewables play?

The world has recognized that we need to move towards lower greenhouse gas emissions—and as an industry we’re asking ourselves what we can do to promote sustainability to create the change we want to see. For us, this means moving away from traditional energy supply sources and going for other options such as solar, wind, and even geothermal cooling and heating.

We all know what we need to do, but the real crisis is the timeframe. Our mining industry has set net zero targets for 2050 and some companies have interim targets starting in 2025. How can we achieve these targets? We’ll first need to explore what technology and renewable energy sources we have at our disposal to help facilitate this transition.

Renewables

Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biogas, hydrogen, and battery-energy storage solutions are not yet technologically advanced to meet mining’s huge power demands—they’re not yet scalable to the gigawatt levels we require.

This will undoubtedly change in the future as we invest further into research and development. Our hydropower plants are producing the gigawatts we need. However, these plants aren’t located close to most mining activity in Australia. That makes it difficult to replace the current fossil fuel systems we have in place with hydropower.

A remote solar farm in Australia. 

The move towards greener energy sources

In Australia, mining companies have adopted a targeted and phased approach to greener energy sources. The first stage is to increase the use of renewable energy sources, rather than using diesel generators or tapping into the existing grid.

A recent example of how we’re doing this is the work we’ve been doing with TransAlta and BHP Nickel West (BHP) to develop two solar power and battery sites in Western Australia’s Northern Goldfields. This project aims to provide fuel savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 54,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. The project includes a 27-megawatt solar farm at Mount Keith, a 10-megawatt solar farm at Leinster, and a 10-megawatt storage system. This renewable energy project is the first solar photovoltaic build in Australia for TransAlta and BHP.

While we have known for some time that we’re facing an energy crisis, the real crisis is the timeframe in which we need to turn things around.

In addition, we’re also starting to see more green innovation in the energy supply space. Recently, energy retailer Synergy was looking to create a virtual plant to collect and store energy from solar hotspots in schools across Western Australia. They did this by installing commercial-grade batteries at multiple locations, these centrally located, and virtually aggregated batteries have been alleviating strain on the network during peak times. Due to the success of the project, this model is being extended across regional Western Australia.

We’ll no doubt see more projects like these two popping up in our mining industry now that we can see the value they bring. What we see emerging in the industry is companies wanting to move towards more sustainable models and employing innovation to help them achieve their targets.

The Synergy virtual power plant in Western Australia.

Decarbonisation reduction is beyond just renewable energy sources

We’re also seeing the reliance on gas and diesel in the mining operations addressed. Although the technology required to decarbonize our mining fleet is not readily available, significant investment has been made by mining companies and transport-equipment suppliers in this area. The electrification of trucks, locomotives, and other vehicles is under investigation and trial.

So is the use of vehicles running on hydrogen and green-fuel alternatives. Why green hydrogen? Because, according to Fortescue Future Industries which is championing its use, it’s nontoxic and nonpoisonous and is the most abundant element on Earth. It can also be stored in large quantities for long periods of time and, most importantly, it can be released without contributing to atmospheric or water pollution. With the amount of money being invested in green-hydrogen technology globally, it could account for a substantial component in the mining operations energy mix by 2050. 

Mining companies are also looking to reduce emissions in their processing and refinery operations. Stantec clients Rio Tinto and Alcoa have jointly developed a new process that eliminates all direct greenhouse gases from aluminium smelting, which currently requires huge amounts of electricity, powered by coal, to produce it. Planning for full scale commercialization is underway for this zero-carbon smelting process to produce green aluminium.

What else can we do to alleviate pressure?

The ways we use energy and the choices we make today shape our future. The circular economy, reducing, reusing, and recycling cuts our energy demand. Reimagining our processes and resources makes environmental, business, and economic sense. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more waste recovery to generate electricity and energy soon. The mining industry is also looking at ways of using less energy by repurposing what can we’re learning into other applications. When a mine closes for example, the infrastructure is usually torn down and scrapped, but this scrap can be reused elsewhere, taking the end-of-life concept and giving it a second life. We recently conducted studies with TransAlta and BHP Nickel West to see if we could reuse process steam to generate electricity in a steam turbine. Furthermore, we can use items such as waste rock in multiple ways—to refill old open-pit mines, as landscaping materials, or even in the road construction industry as aggregates. The list is endless.

What does the future look like?

While our Australian team specializes in a host of alternative energy systems such as solar photovoltaics, wind energy, biogas and other bio-fuel solutions, waste-to-energy-hybrid systems, and energy storage among others, we’re always excited to work with colleagues that bring other perspectives. Since our current energy grids do not cope well with the intermittent nature of renewable generation, it’s critical to have the right approach to high-voltage direct current (HVDC) expertise, which comes from our colleagues in Canada. HVDC technology is emerging as the leading solution for renewables grid interconnection and has the benefits of managing grid stability and lower transmission losses. The demand for grid modernization will continue to grow and we’re excited to see what we can help deliver.

While we have known for some time that we’re facing an energy crisis, the real crisis is the timeframe in which we need to turn things around. We’re making huge strides with intensive investment in research and development. We are searching out innovative solutions to help drive the change we need to see. Our Australian mining industry is leading the way and have set their own net carbon targets. We know that we must be the change we want to see, and our industry is striving towards achieving better outcomes for our communities and the environment.

  • Wayne Peel

    As the regional manager for our Australian Energy and Resources unit, Wayne drives business growth while keeping his focus on sustainability and preservation.

    Contact Wayne
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