Renewable energy in mining: A practical application for active operations
The mine of the future will need to generate nearly 100 percent of its energy requirements—for powering the mine and supplying the vehicle fleet—with emission-free energy. Currently, there are many technologies in development to help us achieve mass electrification in mining. This includes high efficiency renewable generation, low-cost energy storage for both short duration and longer duration, high-density battery and hydrogen powered vehicles, combined heat and power generation from solar-enclosed technologies, and small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).
One of the most appealing use cases to date lies in a hybrid microgrid approach. Several mines have started down this path, integrating wind or solar photovoltaic (PV) generation with short duration lithium ion batteries. These configurations typically generate between 10 to 25 percent of a mine’s total electricity needs. In these low penetration microgrids, the microgrid continues to be controlled by the diesel gensets with renewables acting as a reduction to the overall mine load, while short duration lithium ion batteries are utilized to reduce the variability that stems from renewable generation. The batteries essentially act as an operating reserve and will either generate or store electricity if there is a significant drop or increase in renewable generation, that is until a diesel genset can be safely ramped up or down. This approach allows for fewer gensets to remain online at any given time, reducing both fuel consumption and operating costs.
Today, many mining operations are targeting medium renewable penetration, aiming for 40 to 60 percent of total electricity generated from renewable sources. Continually reducing costs and improving performance of wind and solar PV, as well as innovations to support reliable operations in extreme climates have made these generation sources more attractive. However, in order to achieve medium to high renewable penetration, the dispatch of the diesel gensets must be modified. The renewable generator’s contribution to the microgrid is significant and can no longer be treated as a simple reduction in load. Energy storage integration is a must, allowing all diesel gensets to be turned off for several hours. During these short periods, the wind or solar PV generation is high enough to cover the mine’s electricity needs. When the gensets are off, the energy storage will control the grid, maintaining power quality and controlling the variability of the renewable generation.
In the future, as more aggressive and higher renewable penetration targets are set, aiming for near 100 percent renewable penetration—a significant shift in operating strategies—is required. In this scenario, diesel gensets will only be operated during extended periods of low renewable generation. This will require both high power energy storage to smooth short duration intermittency and long duration energy storage to support the supply of renewable generation, shifting it over several hours of the day. Long duration storage is key to enabling this operating mode and there are many technologies being developed to support this requirement, including flow batteries, zinc batteries, geothermal and thermal storage, compressed gas storage, and hydrogen storage.
As mines reach higher renewable penetration there will be excess power available at virtually no cost. The amount of excess renewable power available depends on both the mine’s location and the technologies adopted with up to 50 percent of the total renewable generation available for heat demand and truck charging. Battery-powered trucks are expected to dominate the market for 100 tonnes of production or less. Heavy payload trucks of 300 tonnes and above will be hydrogen-powered and refilled with green hydrogen, mostly produced with excess power from the mine’s renewable generation output. In sunny locations, heat-intensive mining processes will use solar-enclosed technologies to produce both heat and power with a single generation technology. Lithium mines require large amount of process steam and will benefit the most from solar-enclosed heat and power technologies. This will consequently lead to a decarbonization of the entire Lithium mining processes, further accelerating the uptake of Lithium-based batteries for renewable integration and electric vehicles.
And finally, SMRs are another highly anticipated technology pathway for remote mining. SMRs can be factory-produced and meet scalable power demands, giving the mine the flexibility to add modules based on current and future power demand. SMRs can produce MW-scale baseload power that can be complemented by other traditional renewable and storage technologies to meet the mine and fleet energy demand. In Canada alone, a dozen companies have pre-licensing engagements with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Once a successful demonstration is achieved, the mining sector is set to be a primary target for commercialization, due to its high reliance on expensive diesel fuel in remote areas.
It’s no secret that off-grid mines are faced with electricity generation challenges, but with all of these technologies in the commercial development pipeline, we have an incredible opportunity to drastically curb climate change impacts in mining. The time is now!
This article originally appeared in the Canadian Mining Journal, published on August 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of Tugliq – Photograph Justin Bulota – Project Raglan.
Jocelyn Zuliani, PhD
Energy Storage Lead, Renewable Power
As Hatch’s energy storage lead, Jocelyn has over six years of experience working on energy storage technologies. Her work focuses on assessing energy storage technologies and partnering with companies to select the appropriate solutions to address their needs and overcome their challenges.
Hybrid Power Lead, Renewable Power
Joel has expertise in modelling and optimizing energy projects such as hybrid power, wind, solar, thermal power, energy storage, and LNG alternatives. He holds a Ph.D. in Energy and Economics from University College London (UCL) on hybrid renewable power systems for the mining industry. He has gained considerable experience in cost optimization and decision-analysis from the various business ventures and research projects in which he was involved. Joel has over ten years of professional experience and worked with Fortune 500 clients and other market leaders.