With its history of environmental damage, the mining industry has a dirty reputation – but it is working to change this. As global concern grows about high carbon emissions and harmful, unsustainable mining practices and non-renewables-based thermal power sources, mining companies are starting the move towards the adoption of renewables and partial displacement of thermal power. Many are shifting towards adopting a diversified electricity system fuelled by a hybrid of renewables and traditional non-renewable thermal power.

There are several examples of mines doing this in Africa, but Sukari Gold Mine in Egypt is perhaps the most notable, having started on a $37 million 36MW solar farm project and 7.5 MW battery energy storage system. This will be integrated into the site’s existing diesel power plant. Planned and under construction by Juwi AG, the development will be the world’s largest Solar Hybrid Project at a mining site.

Mining companies are moving towards green energy for a number of reasons.

It is, of course, an effort to reduce carbon emissions and a response to a greater awareness of the unsustainability of their current power sources, and the comparative cost efficiency of renewables. However, it is also a response to increased pressure from investors and politicians to make these changes or face losing funding.  Additionally – and in answer to the question of renewables’ reliability – they are a dependable, stable power solution, and can also keep operations running when non-renewables power systems go down.

The uncertainty of whether renewables are reliable as a power source for mining power stations is understandable – they are by design dependent on the weather, which is changeable and out of human control. This is probably the main downside of renewables and the reason that a hybrid power system, or flexible grid, is ideal and likely necessary for mines. With conventional power as a backup in case of storms or cloud cover shutting down power flow from solar or wind farms, mines will be able to operate continuously without disruption.

However, once you delve deeper into the technicalities of having a renewable energy system integrated into mines’ power stations, there are a fair number of indicators showing that renewables may be more reliable overall than thermal power.

What makes renewable power a more reliable energy option than thermal power for mines?

Industry professionals agree that integrating renewable energy facilities into power systems makes electricity grids more resilient and less vulnerable to power shortages, as it allows companies to create a flexible grid by incorporating renewable energy into the system and integrating it with nuclear or fossil-fuel-based energy. A diverse power grid means that should one power source’s system fail, the other will be providing backup to keep power facilities online.

What is more, it means mining companies will be less vulnerable to price spikes in uranium, oil, coal, and natural gas.

It takes far more effort to bring non-renewables-powered power facilities back online, which would involve, for instance, fixing a gas pipeline or coal power station, than it does to get green energy facilities back up and running if they go down. In addition, an electrical grid powered by renewables power facilities is less likely to fail when met with adverse conditions in the first place.

Furthermore, integrating renewables into mines’ electricity grids would also ease the strain on national power grids.

In 2017, the US Department of Energy did a draft study on the reliability of wind- and solar-powered grids and found that these renewables were indeed a dependable power source. They also stated that non-renewables-based energy is less necessary for providing baseload power for mines’ power grids than they once were.

In the case of solar power, storage technology solutions continue to advance, which means that solar energy systems will become increasingly reliable over time. As technology continues to progress, there is a probability that this will also be the case for other types of renewable power systems in the future, as well.

Image by Karsten Wurth. Courtesy of Unsplash.

The bottom line

Integrating green energy into mines’ power grids is necessary for the mining industry to not just lower its carbon emissions and clean up its reputation, but also to sustain the sector. A diversified electricity grid fuelled by both renewable and non-renewable energy sources is both more sustainable and would lower mines’ carbon footprints. However, it would also be resilient and reliable – and less costly in the long run. For mines to reinforce and improve their power facilities, renewables look to be a promising and reliable solution.

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