The electrification of mines is climbing the agenda of more and more mining companies around the globe as a driver of cost reduction, energy efficiency and license-to-operate stewardship, according to the findings of a recent survey of international miners and mining original equipment manufacturers (OEM).
The survey was commissioned by Ernst & Young (EY) and conducted by the Sustainable Minerals Institute at The University of Queensland and The Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at The University of British Columbia.
The analysis outlines that reaping the full benefits of an electricity-powered mining future will require reskilling, reaching out across sectors and rethinking the fundamentals of mine design.
EY Global Mining and Metals Leader, Paul Mitchell, said the world is already ushering in a new energy system – where cleanly generated electricity will power almost every aspect of our lives.
He believes that the mining sector is on the verge of an electrification revolution, driven by significant cost reduction potential, lowered carbon emissions and improved worker health benefits.
“This is critically important, given the World Health Organisation has declared that diesel particulates now belong in the same deadly category as asbestos, arsenic and mustard gas.”
Four key themes emerged from the survey:
Electrified mines improve economics and strengthen license to operate
The cost of energy represents up to one-third of a mining company’s total cost base, making it a keenly managed component of operations.
Average grades have halved, and overburden has doubled over the last 30 years, and, as mines are beginning to extend to depths beyond current norms, their energy demand is growing even larger.
Alongside this, calls to reduce the mining industry’s carbon emissions are growing louder.
Swapping diesel for electricity is a way forward, yet the survey states that this will only be the case if it comes from renewable sources.
In the past, it was true that clean energy was not as cost-effective, however, costs have certainly fallen, with renewables now on track to outpace all other sources of energy and account for 60 per cent of all capacity additions by 2040.
Furthermore, the reduction of diesel use in an underground mine results in an improvement to worker health and safety where diesel equipment is operated in confined areas and workers are subject to potentially hazardous exhaust fumes in their day-to-day operations.
Therefore, the switch from diesel to electric makes good economic sense, but critically, it also enables a greater level of on-site health and safety.
Collaboration will unlock better electrification solutions
Partnerships and co-creation of solutions with OEMs, other mining companies and governments are needed to successfully integrate electrification in mines.
The survey found that, in the case of electrification, miners are clear that they can’t ‘go it alone’.
This is leading to a more open perspective around the role of suppliers as strategic partners, which expands the possibilities for miners to benefit through innovation, cost reduction and competitive advantage.
Mine design needs a rethink to build in optionality for future innovation
Decoupling mines from diesel is not an easy task, due to the diverse range of technical and financial challenges in mining various deposits.
Getting full value out of electrification requires a thorough consideration and understanding of the technology road map, in parallel with the strategic plan for the mine.
The survey highlights the need for a ‘phased implementation’ with a flexible design that allows space for technology improvements of the future.
Electrification needs different skills, and advances technology deployment
Mine electrification requires different worker skills as it enables other advanced technologies, requiring less maintenance and human intervention.
The results of the survey detail that there will likely be a rising demand for data and digital literacy skills across all phases of the mining value chain, as the human-to-machine interface evolves and becomes more prevalent.
In developing economies, this means challenging the assumption that a mine provides employment only for people doing physical labour.
In conclusion, EY’s Paul Mitchell says it is important to start thinking about building agility into mine design to leverage the potential benefits in asset flexibility, lower ventilation requirements and the human footprint.
“The future of electrification in mines requires a paradigm shift in thinking – from existing known and proven technologies to new emerging technologies. We must realise that the challenges of the sector can be solved faster by collaboration – and a robust strategy, underpinned by gaining the right capabilities and an agile approach, is critical,” he concluded.