A new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute has concluded that a collection of factors working together have created a “groundbreaking” opportunity for decarbonising the global mining industry, specifically a transition to renewable energy across the industry.
The report was published by Sunshine for Mines, a Rocky Mountain Institute–Carbon War Room program that facilitates the adoption of renewables for mines and aims to reach a total of 8 GW of renewable capacity in the ground for mines by 2025. The Sunshine for Mines team analysed the mining industry and found that there are numerous advantages that could be employed to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of the industry. The global mining industry represents anywhere from 1.25% to 11% of the world’s total energy consumption, depending on the source, but with the right modifications, the industry could go from being a highly carbon intensive industry to relying on renewable energy to significantly reduce its emissions.
Specifically, the report, Toward Sustainable Mining, concludes that, “Considering current technology costs, every mining function except trucking can be electrified, from shovelling to the on-site movement of raw materials.”
The report doesn’t identify a need to halt extraction of natural resource commodities, but rather focuses on ways to further increase the energy efficiency of the mining industry — which has made significant progress already in productivity and energy efficiency but can do much more. Only 2.5% of the mining sector’s electricity mix is sourced from renewable energy, but that figure could be increased dramatically. The authors of the report believe that a large portion of the electricity consumed by the mining sector could be sourced from renewable energy at or below the cost of traditional diesel generators or grid power.
“Today, serving even a fraction of the electricity load of a large mining site via renewable energy can mean adding tens of megawatts (MW) of new renewable capacity in a single project,” the authors of the report state. “Over time, this can lead to the displacement of an equivalently large amount of diesel-generated electricity and its associated carbon emissions. “
Of course, there is the possibility that in the future the total amount of material being dug out of the ground will decrease. In 2014, 17.4 billion metric tonnes equivalent of mineral raw materials were extracted by the extractive industry, of which 7 billion metric tonnes were oil and gas. The mining industry itself is a subset of this larger sector and deals with the extraction of solid minerals — including coal. The mining industry extracted 10.4 billion metric tonnes of material in 2014, of which over ¾ was coal.
The Mining Industry as a Subset of the Extractive Industry
So, in the future, some of these numbers may decrease naturally, as the coal industry is finally put to rest in the coming decades. However, humanity will likely always need something out of the ground, and it is important that — as with every other industry and sector — the mining industry is decarbonised to the fullest extent. The authors of the report explain that, “Even though extracting raw materials is necessary, doing so in a carbon-intensive manner is not.”
The global energy consumption of the mining industry in 2014 amounted to almost 1,400 Terawatt-hours (TWh) — not bad, considering the total energy consumption of Spain was just above 1,300 TWh. Modern-day energy economics make it possible to integrate renewable energy to reduce carbon intensity for mining sites.
The authors of the report compared the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for solar, gas peaking, and diesel generation found at remote, off-grid mining sites. They revealed that there are significant advantages for switching to renewable energy.
Levelized Cost of Energy: Fossil Fuels vs. Solar
There are numerous benefits for switching to renewable beyond just swapping out fossil fuels for renewables. There has always been volatility in fossil fuel prices, impacting both grid-connected and off-grid mining sites. Swapping to an on-site solar energy and storage system would create supply stability and insulate the industry from fossil fuel price spikes. Further, a larger-than-necessary solar project that is connected to the grid could not only supply all the electricity needs of the site, but also generate extra electricity that can be sold back to the grid. Of course, there are also the less-tangible benefits, such as creating shared value, improving community relations, mitigating climate risks, and creating value out of closed mines.
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