Will Solar Power Change Mining and METS Companies?
Martin Vasilescu, Country Manager Explosives, Davey Bickford Enaex
Solar power finds its technological origins in the late 19th century, and the first solar cells were brought to market in 1953. It’s only in recent years, however, that solar has become a viable investment for commercial mining and other energy-intensive industries.
The facts speak for themselves: In 2018, solar cells accounted for 5.2% of the Australia’s total electrical output. By March of 2019, Australian solar energy farms had a capacity of 12,035 megawatts – and a full third of that capacity (4,068 MW) was generated by installations less than a year old. These numbers are set to increase as technology evolves.
The mining industry, which struggles historically with negative perceptions around energy usage and environmental ethos, seems to be moving irresistibly toward solar power. The question is, how strong a case can be made right now?
Diesel v. Solar
Diesel fuel is the bread-and-butter of remote mining operations, but unlike the Australian sunshine, diesel is susceptible to shortages, price fluctuations, and delivery problems. Any of these issues can produce costly downtime.
Even mines that are plugged into the grid feel a pinch when power supply is interrupted. This is illustrated by South Australia’s widespread blackout in 2016, which caused problems for a number of mining operations, including the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam mine, which had to stop production for two weeks.
Stability and self-sufficiency are among the reasons why several prominent mining houses are augmenting diesel-powered operations with solar energy. For example, the Weipa Solar Farm currently generates 1.2 megawatts of electricity for a bauxite mine operated by Rio Tinto. According to a press release, the project has reduced the site’s annual consumption of diesel fuel by 600,000 litres.
Even more telling is the Nova Operation site in Western Australia, which is run by Independence Group. The mine is new, and it promises a robust production of nickel, copper and cobalt. During the site’s first full year of production (2018), it was announced that Zenith Energy, a company that “specialise in tailored off-grid power generation and service models,” would build a hybrid power plant (solar/diesel) on-site.
This shows the rise of solar in Australian mining from two different angles. First, a viable new mine in a remote location is betting on solar for long-term success. Second, all three of the metals it produces – nickel, copper and cobalt – are important to the production of solar batteries and other green technologies. It’s not far-fetched to say that within a few years, some of the PV panels at Nova Operation could be built with metals harvested from that very site.
Seeing the bigger (and smaller) picture of sustainability
The fast-paced evolution of solar technology offers a promising path for remote mines to reduce dependence on diesel fuel, and in some cases to provide power to surrounding communities. At the same time, increased demand for panels and batteries creates production opportunities for a long list of metals that are relevant to green technology.
Still, despite all the arguments for it, solar power does not yet make overwhelming financial sense for every mining site in Australia, much less the world. Fortunately, becoming more sustainable is not always a question of quantum leaps. There are countless areas where a commitment to sustainability can be reaffirmed, resulting in operational and social benefits.
In the case of digital blasting, Davey Bickford-Enaex has unlocked new efficiencies – and lowered environmental footprints – at mining sites across the world. Time and again, we’ve witnessed the operational benefit of better fragmentation, reduced downtime, and more efficient excavation. We’ve also seen (as a result of lower vibrations and fewer blasting days) the social benefit of reduced disturbance to surrounding communities.
In order to become more sustainable today, every mining and METS company should be aware of systemic changes like solar. Whether or not we see fit to adopt those changes today, we can dig into the minutiae of each operation and relieve pressure points that prevent us from doing more with less.