Hard Times Force Traditionally Energy-Hogging Mines To Produce Their Own Clean Energy

Written by Dana Sanchez

Mining and clean energy don’t share common ground. Centuries of environmental degradation and mineral extraction using fossil fuels have contributed to a dirty reputation for mining.

But the collapse of the emerging market commodities boom of the 2000s has miners scrambling to reinvent themselves, Triple Pundit reports. With commitments in the face of climate change to reduce carbon emissions and to address energy insecurity, the global mining industry is beginning to embrace renewables.

In South Africa, the mining industry uses 6 percent of all energy consumed, according to country’s Department of Minerals and Energy, Clean Tech Investor reported.

Globally, mining consumes 38 percent of industrial energy. In the U.S. state of Colorado, mining accounts for an estimated 18 percent of total industrial sector energy use, while overall in the U.S. mining uses 3 percent of industrial energy.

Energy costs are estimated to represent more than 15 percent of total mining production costs in the U.S., and can exceed 25 percent in African countries, according to World Bank.

That’s reason enough to justify reduced energy use but mining companies seem to pay limited attention to cost during boom times, Clean Tech Investor reported.

No mine is 100 percent renewable yet, but solar photovoltaic costs have fallen 80 percent since 2008. Along with battery storage breakthroughs, “a fossil fuel-free future is all but imminent,” said Joseph Kirschke, a consultant who advises mining companies on sustainability.

Alternative energy use by the mining industry as a whole is expected to grow from 1.8 percent today to 8 percent by 2022, consultancy Navigant predicts.

With ample wind and solar resources at their disposal, 80 percent of new African mines are expected to be at least partially clean energy-dependent by 2026, according to the International Finance Corp. (IFC).

During the commodities boom, mining companies shipped supplies, equipment and people to far-flung places in Africa with few, if any, roads or infrastructure, Kirschke said in a guest column in Triple Pundit.

This casts a light on South Africa, the continent’s top mining country. Germany’s Cronimet Mining-Power Solutions set up a 1.6-megawatt solar mini grid in isolated Limpopo Province to meet 60 percent of its needs, saving 450,000 liters of diesel.

The Rocky Mountain Institute-Carbon War Room’s Sunshine For Mines initiative, partly founded by Sir Richard Branson to promote 15 percent alternative energy use industry-wide by 2025, helped the Johannesburg-based Gold Fields with a 40 megawatt solar project at its South Deep asset, one of the world’s largest gold mines.

How does mining use energy?

Resource extraction includes drilling for oil, gas, minerals and metals in a process recognized as a major emitter of greenhouse gases.

Mining’s energy intensive processes include excavation, mine operation, material transfer, mineral preparation and separation. The local environmental impact of mines, many of which are located in remote areas, has concerned environmentalists for years

In 2015, World Bank called for mines to serve as “anchors” for power distribution in Africa, where 600 million people are affected by energy poverty:

African mines, with their substantial and growing need for power, could be the critical “anchor consumers”—high-volume customers that provide a captive source of demand and consistent revenues—that harness these energy resources.

Mines are greedy for power, and in sub-Saharan Africa’s power sector, this may be the sort of greed that is actually good. Because mining activities require large amounts of power to run their systems—power is rarely less than 10 percent of the operating costs of mining and often rises above 25 percent—these mines present themselves naturally as “anchor consumers” that can stabilize the sector. Leveraging mining’s power demand and its capital investments in power infrastructure—also known as “power-mining integration”—is an opportunity to develop the power sector of Africa’s mineral-rich economies and expand electrification.

Despite a slow start, the U.S. government hopes to double energy access in sub-Saharan Africa through renewables and other energy sources with new connections to 60 million households and businesses, Triple Pundit reported. Since 2013, the global public-private sector initiative has raised $43 billion.

The international climate-change agenda is one of promises and progress. The potential of Earth’s 2,200 mechanized mines – many older than 50 years — to become clean energy resources cannot be underestimated, Kirschke said.

Mining energy demand expected to triple

The future power demand from mining could reach up to 23,443 megawatts in 2020, according to a World Bank report:

While South Africa is projected to add sizable mining demand for power and grow at 3.5 percent annually, the growth in other sub-Saharan countries is projected to be 9.2 percent.

Demand will come overwhelmingly from the Southern Africa region, dominated by South Africa. Even without South Africa, Southern Africa will have the highest power demand from mining, largely due to the large requirements in Mozambique and Zambia, followed by Central Africa and Western Africa.

Mining demand in Guinea, Liberia, and Mozambique is expected to represent more than total non-mining demand by 2020. This growing demand will create even higher pressures to close the supply gap. Compared with grid-supply in 2012, mining demand in 2020 could be as much as 35 percent.