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Charged up: Key considerations around electric vehicle use on mine sites

June 28, 2021

By Kim Trapani

As the mining industry pushes for sustainable solutions, it’s important to examine the benefits—and potential obstacles—around battery-powered EVs

Can you feel that push towards sustainability in the mining industry? Mining companies are moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of that push, I’ve noticed an increased interest in one technology in particular: Battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

The momentum around adopting battery-electric technologies stems from the fact that BEVs help reduce carbon emissions—a goal for many organizations that want to lessen their impact on the environment. But green vehicles can also lead to other operational benefits for mining sites.

Before you rush to purchase a fleet of battery-powered vehicles for your mining site, you should be aware of several points that I’ve heard from mining clients, colleagues, and other industry contacts. While the move towards BEVs and carbon reduction is ultimately a positive thing, there are a few obstacles that the industry needs to overcome before BEVs can become truly mainstream. Here are some things to consider if you’re looking at implementing BEVs for your mining operation.

For many mines, reducing their carbon footprint will benefit the communities around them and likely lead to positive public engagement and potentially more business.

Improving the air quality above and below ground

Let’s start with a big plus for BEVs: They lead to health and safety improvements for people working in underground sites. Reducing diesel particulate matter—by switching from diesel to electricity—improves air quality. The use of BEVs can remove the diesel particulate matter from underground (which is a carcinogen) and reduce the heat, noise, and vibration from mobile vehicles.

Aside from operator comfort, there’s another benefit here: You don’t need to ventilate as much when you use BEVs because there’s no need to dilute harmful contaminants from diesel. The switch to a fully electric mobile fleet often results in a 40% to 50% reduction in ventilation demands. This is equivalent to a big cost savings in both power used and ventilation infrastructure. 

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The use of BEVs can remove the diesel particulate matter from underground (which is a carcinogen) and reduce the heat, noise, and vibration from mobile vehicles. They also reduce the need for ventilation.

An uphill battle?

Here’s an obstacle to widespread BEV use that I’ve seen in the industry: BEVs are somewhat constrained by their batteries. They could be limited in their performance when hauling long distances uphill.

Of course, this may not be an issue for all mines. Some mines have shafts and conveyors, which lessens the reliance on the vehicles themselves to pull material out of the mine. Smaller mines may only have a few hundred feet of uphill haulage, which could be appropriate for BEVs. 

You must look at this on a case-by-case basis. If a project requires a lot of uphill trucking, battery electric vehicles may not make sense. Why? Because the team will have to keep charging batteries and swapping them out so that the EVs can make it up the hill. In those cases, trolley EVs could potentially replace the BEVs.

Needing another charge

Here’s a related point that I’ve heard from people in the industry: BEVs used in mining need to be charged multiple times per day, which can potentially cause delays. And power sources that are needed to charge them aren’t always easy to come by on mine sites.

I’ve seen mine operators deal with this issue. You can keep the equipment operating by strategically positioning charging stations and performing quick battery swaps. You remove the depleted battery from an engine, replace it with a charged battery, and then place the depleted battery in your charging station. If teams can do this process efficiently—which always makes me think of pit crews rushing to change tires during Formula 1 races—the delays won’t be too significant.

Battery life and maintenance

Here’s something that BEV manufacturers need to figure out: Batteries in BEVs tend to have a short life—around two years—and it can cost a lot to replace them. I see this as a barrier to widespread use.

Many mining companies that I’ve worked with are interested in leasing batteries from manufacturers. That way, the companies can replace their batteries as needed, and they won’t be responsible for battery disposal. 

To be greener, we need a shift for the entire lifecycle of the product. If we begin by reducing the carbon footprints of mines—starting at the source—the positive effects will trickle down to the product.

Commercial availability and maintainability

At the moment, there are only a handful of manufacturers producing the types of BEVs needed for mining. This can lead to an increased cost for these green vehicles. It’ll be interesting to watch how the BEV industry progresses and if prices drop with increased demand and competition. I’m curious to see how carbon taxes from governments—like Canada’s federal carbon pollution pricing system—incentivize companies to seek out diesel alternatives. 

Another issue? These manufacturers produce only a few models, which may make the purchasing process more complicated for mines looking for a truck of a certain capacity.

These issues around the small group of BEV manufacturers and models leads to a related point. Can mining companies feel comfortable that their vehicles will be maintained for a long time? Early adopters of EVs in mining (from decades ago, typically with trolley EVs) had to scrap their trolley EVs because manufacturers would no longer maintain them.

When it comes to maintenance, BEVs require a specialized skillset that includes personnel trained in both mechanical and electrical. It’ll be interesting to see if more people develop these maintenance skills as popularity increases. 

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When it comes to maintenance, BEVs require a specialized skillset that includes personnel trained in both mechanical and electrical.

Taking a holistic perspective

Here’s another concern that I’ve heard: The production of the BEVs and the batteries themselves tends to generate a lot of emissions, so it’s debatable whether greenhouse gases are significantly reduced by mining operations using BEVs instead of diesel. I’ve seen similar arguments from critics about the energy used to build solar panels.

We need to take a holistic perspective about BEV production. If the world is pushing towards sustainable solutions and battery-powered vehicles, mining companies are needed to source the lithium needed for BEV batteries and other materials needed for vehicle production. As the mining business gets greener, the products used in BEVs will become sourced from greener mines. Then, BEV manufacturers can prioritize sourcing materials from greener mines and using renewable energy sources to power their plants.

To be greener, we need a shift for the entire lifecycle of the product. If we begin by reducing the carbon footprints of mines—starting at the source—the positive effects will trickle down to the product. 

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The momentum around adopting battery-electric technologies stems from the fact that BEVs help reduce carbon emissions—a goal for many organizations that want to lessen their impact on the environment.

Making a business case

In the end, the switch from traditional diesel to electric vehicles in mining is all about having the right intentions. These intentions must be motivated by the push to have a more sustainable mine—and one that is supported by its economics. Mines need to show their stakeholders proof of profitability, so it’s important to have a strong business case around BEV use.

For many mines, reducing their carbon footprint will benefit the communities around them and likely lead to positive public engagement and potentially more business. It’ll be fascinating to watch people develop innovative solutions for these potential roadblocks to widespread BEV use on mine sites. And I’m excited to watch the mining industry push for sustainability. 

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  • Kim Trapani

    Passionate about finding sustainable solutions that reduce society’s impact on the environment, Kim is a ventilation engineer working with our team in Sudbury, Ontario.

    Contact Kim
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