Mining is important for extracting resources needed to facilitate the energy transition. The question is, how can we make the mining industry’s energy transition possible?
For the energy transition of the world, mining plays a distinctive and crucial role. The mining industry is significantly responsible for providing materials for renewable energy infrastructure as the world attempts to convert to cleaner energy sources to battle the consequences of global warming. Copper is used in wind turbines, lithium is used to power electric vehicles, and aluminium is used to make solar panels—all of these are products of mining. The World Bank estimates that demand for these mined materials is expected to increase significantly in the coming years.
Miners must find a way to balance the increased production of these commodities with lower total carbon emissions to strive towards a more sustainable future. Fuelled by these pressures, the goal of achieving net-zero mining operations is quickly becoming the new normal.
What is the race to ‘Zero’?
The goal of net-zero emissions is to get as near to zero as possible in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, such that the amount we release into the environment does not exceed the amount we remove. Net-zero mining is an umbrella phrase that refers to decarbonisation through renewable energy sources, better water management, and overall effect minimisation to communities and the environment. To adopt net-zero mining practices, owners need to become more conscious of how their mines are being designed—and operated—and commit to more sustainable practices.
In a high-energy-consuming industry such as mining, energy is the second most significant operational cost in most mining operations. Infrastructure, transportation, equipment, ventilation, and hoisting are all major energy consumers. Mines cannot continue to be substantial sources of greenhouse gases, even when they are required to create renewable energy materials. To meet the ambitious decarbonisation goals outlined by climate change experts across the globe, miners need to find a way to balance growth in their overall production with a reduction in their total carbon emissions.
Why should mine owners bother net-zero?
Committing to net-zero mining has obvious ethical motivations: We all have a responsibility to be decent environmental stewards. There is, however, a monetary incentive. Consumers and investors expect corporations to prioritise sustainability as climate change concerns become more prominent in the global debate, resulting in investors prioritising sustainable mining projects or end-users spending more on sustainable production (or a penalty for poor sustainability performance).
The acronym ESG stands for environmental, social, and corporate governance, and it refers to a set of principles that investors use to assess a company’s social and environmental effects. A demonstrable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions based on science-based targets is one of these benchmarks. It is becoming increasingly difficult for organisations to appeal to investors without demonstrating their commitment to ESG.
What can we do to achieve net-zero emissions in mining?
The good news is that there are a number of ways that mines can move closer to total decarbonisation. The first goal of net-zero mining, like all consumption-based concerns, is to eliminate and/or reduce waste and energy demand. Renewable energy sources, such as those produced by mined metals, can help offset a mine’s carbon emissions. A focus on reducing total energy usage through system and process redesign and adopting alternative technology will also result in lower operating costs.
Wind and solar energy have become increasingly popular at mining sites around the world, and their costs have dropped to the point where they are now a feasible economic choice. Renewable energy could be the answer for miners in harsh settings and remote regions where connectivity to the power grid is inconsistent. We have seen evidence of this in Chilean mines, which have harnessed wind and solar power to benefit both the mining industry and the general population. Currently, 14% of Chile’s energy comes from renewable sources, and they plan to increase that to 70% by the year 2050 (as reported by Bloomberg).
Mining equipment electrification is rapidly becoming a cost-effective alternative to the usage of gas and diesel. Switching to an electric fleet also reduces the amount of ventilation required to keep the mine’s air clean. According to Reuters, when Newmont’s Borden mine switched to battery-powered vehicles and equipment, it became the first “all-electric” mining operation since the 1980s. Not only did this allow them to save money and reduce carbon emissions, but it also allow them to improve the health of mineworkers in the long run.
Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH) technology is a prospective energy storage option that could be excellent for mines. It balances energy demand with supply since electricity supplied by wind turbines and solar panels is not always available when it’s needed. How? By pumping water to higher elevations when demand is low and releasing the water back down through turbines when demand is high. Not only can hydropower benefit operating mines, but it can also be utilised at closed or abandoned mines to power communities or other projects. The existing infrastructure at mine sites makes them uniquely suited for pumped storage projects.
These are only a few of the several routes to net-zero mining. Miners must assess the relationship between growing mine processing water demand and increased water scarcity due to climate change if they expect to limit negative impacts on people and the environment. Anglo American, for example, claims that almost 75% of their locations are in water-stressed areas. This has led to the Water-Less mine initiative, which aims to achieve full recovery recycling. Additionally, mine owners should consider diversifying their portfolios to meet the rising demand for other minerals, notably those required to build renewable energy infrastructure.
Australian Mine owners can also find inspiration from other industries on a similar journey to net-zero emissions and play an equally important role in the energy transition movement.
It’s right now or never!
The effects of climate change that we have seen all around the world are a clear indication that incremental improvements are no longer an option. Immediate and well-planned action towards a zero-carbon future is required in saving the planet. It is also evident that without mining, this future is not possible. The silver lining is that there is an opportunity for the mining industry to be a leader in emissions reductions. New strides and innovations in mining operations occur each day, providing more opportunities for mine owners to help the world meet its aggressive climate goals. We just need to keep net-zero mining at the forefront of the conversation.
So, let us start having those conversations today!
About the author:
Dr Imtiaz Madni
Senior Electrical Engineer
Imtiaz comes from a solid technical background with diverse working experience in the energy industry as a senior electrical engineer and electrical project manager. He has a demonstrated history of working in the manufacturing, electrical systems, renewables, and higher education industries.