Challenges of integrating renewable energy into mining

Solar installation at Rio Tinto’s Weipa bauxite mine in Australia. Copyright: Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Societal concern from a changing climate means the mining industry cannot continue to operate without doing its part to address climate change. Thus, decarbonization is an important consideration for mining executives today. For example, it is number 4 on the top 10 business risks for mining identified by Ernst & Young in their 2021 survey of mining executives. Many mining firms have made carbon reduction commitments, which require them to significantly reduce carbon emissions by 2050 or soon after. This is an attempt by mining firms to mitigate the real business risks that arise from business as usual operations given the energy intensity of mining. To decarbonize, mines have to integrate more renewable energy sources into their operations, especially in remote locations where they are not connected to the grid, to reduce the reliance on fossil fuel.

While the industry is committed to integrating renewable energy into their operations, there are real challenges that make this difficult. In November 2019, our research group at Missouri University of Science & Technology in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Colorado School of Mines organized a workshop to bring industry and academia together to discuss these challenges. We summarized our discussions and findings in a Department of Energy report [1] as well as in a journal paper [2].

We categorized the challenges into industry-specific and industrial linkages challenges. The main industry-specific challenges are:

  • Feedstock demand: In certain cases, mining processes require fossil fuels as feedstock (e.g., coal required in steel-making).
  • Process heat demand: Some mining processes require much higher process heat than what is possible with current renewable energy technology (e.g., steel-making requires temperatures of 800-1200 °C).
  • Constant energy demand: Mining operations tend to run 24/7 while many renewable resources are intermittent.
  • The mining industry’s investment structure: Mines are designed with a life of mine as the mineral resource is a finite resource. Mine lives can be as short as 2 years or as long as 50 years, which may not be conducive for renewable energy investments or power purchase agreements.

The main industrial linkages challenges are:

  • Political will and adjustment costs: When mines shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, it has consequences in host communities where jobs and resources are shifted from fossil fuel-based energy generation to renewable energy ones. Sometimes, host communities do not have the political will to make these transitions.
  • Conflicting business models for mining and the renewable energy companies: Often, the business incentives of these two industries are not aligned.
  • Land constraints: While mining companies may appear to have a lot of land, the occurrence of mineral resources and exploration targets on the land make it difficult to assign the large tracts of land required for renewable generation.
  • There is some lack of renewable energy awareness and expertise among mine engineers who design mining projects during feasibility studies.

These challenges are not insurmountable. With a commitment to research and development, the industry should be able to resolve these challenges so it can decarbonize. This is imperative for the industry’s long term survival.

[1]. Igogo, T., Lowder, T., Engel-Cox, J., Awuah-Offei, K., & Newman, A. M. (2020). Integrating Clean Energy in Mining Operations: Opportunities, Challenges, and Enabling Approaches (No. NREL/TP-6A50-76156). National Renewable Energy Lab.(NREL), Golden, CO (United States).

[2]. Igogo, T., Awuah-Offei, K., Newman, A., Lowder, T., & Engel-Cox, J. (2021). Integrating renewable energy into mining operations: Opportunities, challenges, and enabling approaches. Applied Energy, 300, 117375.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *