Energy boost

Miners are adopting alternatives to traditional power sources and taking advantage of the continent’s plentiful renewables potential

Energy boost

Just five years ago there was still a certain transgressive novelty to features on renewable energy in the mining industry. In the popular imagination, the extractive industries as a whole were sometimes so strongly associated with two specific mineral products – coal and oil – that to some readers, articles about the use of clean energy in mining seemed a contradiction in terms, even when the mining was focused on other commodities. These days, opinions are changing.

It’s true that in some African countries, mining and other industries remain dependent on national grids that make widespread use of coal – although some of the most important African mining jurisdictions are also among the most renewables-intensive nations worldwide. These include Mozambique, Zambia, the DRC, Namibia, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Angola.

SA doesn’t do nearly as well. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2012 the country produced around just 1% of its grid power from renewables. Since then, as anyone who follows the news will know, SA has seen one of the most rapid expansions of private-sector renewables in any country globally, with great potential for further growth. But there are still long-term obstacles. In particular, the ongoing failure of the government to create a predictable purchasing regime for private-sector renewables means that this opportunity could be missed.

As various analysts have argued, there may come a tipping point when long-term investment attractiveness soars for those states that have advanced far enough down the renewables installation curve – where infrastructure costs are falling and the future energy pricing environment is becoming increasingly dependable. As the converse of this, investment may drop off in those states that haven’t advanced far enough on this path, where local industries are likely to be increasingly vulnerable to swings in the price and shortfalls in the supply of coal, and – perhaps more importantly – to international trade penalties determined by regulatory actions or conventions agreed elsewhere.

National grid-level evolution of this kind is evidently the result of government policy, although mining companies and others can be effective lobbyists for their preferred energy mix. Meanwhile, on the mine site itself, the use of renewables to support operations is steadily increasing.

In particular, the use of renewables for mining has been boosted by the development of reliable and scalable diesel-solar hybrid plants. For mines away from the grid and in countries with dependable year-round ‘sunfall’ such as Australia and SA, these plants are becoming increasingly popular. While they cannot completely replace conventional fuel usage, hybrid solar can generate very significant fuel savings for an individual mine, slashing overall production costs per mineral unit versus competitors.

A growing number of specialist companies now offer modular, turnkey hybrid solar installations tailored to a particular mining project, with hiring or other financing plans that allow the mine owner to avoid the capex risks associated with the development of in-house generation.

In SA, one of the earliest adopters of on-site hybrid solar generation was Cronimet Mining in the Limpopo province, where a 1 MW solar-diesel plant was installed in 2013 – then the world’s largest facility of its kind. In 2017, however, 1 MW seemed small compared to other projects on the horizon. Notably, in May last year the JSE-listed Gold Fields announced that it will build two 20 MW pure solar PV plants at its South Deep gold mine in Gauteng. While this is not a fully off-grid power supply (South Deep operations will at times continue to draw grid power), it indicates the scale of ambition and potential cost savings unleashed by an increased enthusiasm for renewables among some mining firms.

Nevertheless, the biggest savings for miners, and the most significant long-term gains in sustainability, will only come when the state – rather than individual firms – makes a dedicated policy effort to unlock Africa’s immense solar and wind potential.

By David Bannister
Image: Wilnicque Rall