Mining is a power-intense industry. And because sites are often in remote areas, the potential shortfall of available grid power introduces further complexity into operations. This has resulted in mines relying on fossil-based fuel sources such as diesel or coal and supplement those with massive on-site diesel generators. But to counteract the high cost and environmental impact of these traditional approaches, there is a rising interest in adopting hybrid energy solutions. Dinesh Buldoo, Director: Power at WSP in Africa, takes a closer look.
Mining companies across Africa are looking to invest in standalone or micro-grid hybrid power solutions that incorporate some form of alternative resource such as gas, or renewable energy options like solar or wind to address off-peak demand. These enable mines to address the risk associated with grid power interruptions or find a workable solution where grid power access is not available. They can also offset the unstable costs and risks associated with their reliance on and access to diesel.
At a time when the focus is on ESG (environment, social and governance), using hybrid power solutions can also see mines positively contribute to the carbon reduction of their operations.
The benefits of adopting renewable energy resources in hybrid power generation solutions are clear. For one, it is a cleaner fuel source. Environmental pollution from solar or wind energy is far lower than technologies that rely on combustion of fossil fuels.
It is also more sustainable. As long as the sun shines and the wind blows, the energy produced can be harnessed to send power across the grid. Simply put, renewable energy resources are cost effective. With constant developments and advances in the technology, the upfront capital investment to build a solar or wind farm is becoming increasingly affordable.
Renewable power plants can be deployed close to the source of demand through micro-generation. This also means that the renewable power plant will feed the mine with the power supply that it needs for its operations and at a locked-in price.
Mining companies are under immense pressure to address climate risk by reducing greenhouse gasses and the impact of their operations on the environment. By adopting alternative power solutions, mining companies will not only be in a better position to secure their supply but, by integrating cleaner alternative energy sources, also support decarbonisation strategies and therein meet the mine’s ESG commitments.
Admittedly, this adoption is still in the early days although it is gaining traction. For instance, in Chile, BHP, Anglo American, and Antofagasta Minerals have all asserted their plans to power their local operations from entirely renewable resources. Brazilian mining company Vale has committed to reach 100% of renewable self-generation by 2025 in Brazil and 100% of renewable electricity consumption globally by 2030.
Africa still has some way to go before the trend becomes mainstream. However, mines across the continent only stand to benefit from micro-generation and using cleaner power. With more multinational operations rolling these out as part of their transition plans it is only a matter of time before mines in Africa starts embracing this as well.
Additionally, hydrogen used as energy storage can contribute to the resilience of major electricity systems. And clean hydrogen technologies can help domestic sectors to decarbonise. Heavy vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells could meet the increasing demand for zero emissions transport, with the advantage of long range, rapid refuelling, and moderate costs. Replacing natural gas with hydrogen could in many cases decarbonise direct combustion at less cost than can electrification.
One of the biggest business opportunities for renewable energy is certainly off-grid mines. This holds potential to reduce pressure on national and regional grids. Additionally, where mining sites are in very remote locations, renewables offer more cost-efficient solutions to establish independent power plants and micro-grids that can feed the mine with the power supply that it needs – as well as potentially supply power to communities and small industries in the surrounding areas.
Ultimately, mines can ill afford to continue with the energy status quo. They must embrace cleaner, alternative energy sooner rather than later if they are to ensure the longevity of operations within the current pressurised ESG environment.