Mining sector races to net-zero by 2050
Metal Tech News – August 10, 2022
Last updated 8/16/2022 at 2:47pm
Aligned with global climate goals agreed upon in international pacts such as the Paris Agreement, most of the major mining companies that will supply the raw materials required to build the low-carbon future have declared their own targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 to 40% by 2030 and net-zero by 2050.
How likely is it that this industrial sector known for its enormous diesel-powered digging and hauling machines and power-hungry ore processing plants will be able to achieve these lofty goals?
Keith Russell, the regional head for North America at Partners in Performance, believes most mining companies will easily be able to achieve their initial greenhouse gas reducing targets.
"I have no issue with the mining industry as a whole as far as the 2030 goals, whether it is 30 or 40% reduction," Russell, who has taken on the global energy transition leadership role at Partners in Performance, told Metal Tech News. "I think the industry as a whole has that one in a pretty good position."
Eliminating or offsetting the other 60 to 70% of CO2 emissions by 2050, however, is going to require discipline on the corporate level, participation at the worker level, and technologies that have yet to be developed at the grand scale needed for mining operations.
As a global consultancy firm that assists the biggest names in the mining business to increase performance and improve efficiency at mines around the world, Partners in Performance has had a front-row seat as clients such as Rio Tinto, BHP, Glencore, and Teck Resources established greenhouse emissions reduction roadmaps and are now navigating their way to net-zero CO2 emissions over the next three decades.
Economic bottom line
Above and beyond the environmental, social, and governance advantages of staying in lockstep with global government and corporate climate goals, the lowering of CO2 output is increasingly being linked to the economic bottom line of mining companies.
This is because mining investors, manufacturers that buy metals to build their products, and the public that uses those goods are increasingly demanding that minerals and metals be produced with the highest environmental, social, and governance standards. The quantity of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere at the mines that produce the raw materials needed by society is at the top of the ESG list.
While lowering CO2 emissions is especially important for mines that produce the long list of minerals and metals needed to build electric vehicles and low-carbon energy grids, mining financiers and downstream consumers of all metals are increasingly linking greenhouse gas emissions to whether they are willing to do business with a mining company and its operations.
Jim Coxon, vice president of North America operations for Northern Star Resources, told attendees of the Alaska Sustainable Energy conference held in May that investors and fund managers want to take a look at Australia-based gold mining company's CO2 and ESG ledgers before they even begin investigating the potential financial rewards of investments into a mining project.
GHG emissions are also weighing on mining companies' ability to sell the metals they produce, according to Sunil Kumar, vice president of energy strategy and engineering for Kinross Gold Corp.
Kumar said one of the refiners that upgrades doré – a gold bar produced at mine sites that typically has some silver and other impurities – to high-purity gold bars has informed Kinross that in the future it will only accept doré from mines that meet certain CO2 emissions criteria.
For mining companies, this means that the availability of reliable, low-cost, and low-GHG-intensity energy will be a major factor in the economics and investment decisions for building new mines and expanding existing operations.
Kumar informed attendees of the Alaska Sustainable Energy conference that quick and decisive strategies for achieving zero-carbon energy goals are important to Kinross and other global mining companies considering investments in current and future mines.
"Timing is critical," he said.
A zero-carbon power shift
Shifting away from coal, diesel, and natural gas power sources are expected to be the biggest factor in ensuring mining companies meet their 2030 emissions targets.
"For most of the mining industry around the globe, there is a significant opportunity to really get an advantage and move their source of power to renewables," Russell told Metal Tech News. "That gives them a big kick, when they move off of what is often coal-fired power that is generating the electricity that they use and move that to renewables."
Ironically, some of the lowest CO2 emitting mines of today, such as operations powered by the abundant hydroelectricity available in Canada, have the highest hurdle when it comes to reducing emissions by 30 or 40% by the end of the decade.
At these operations, GHG reducing strategies tend to leverage the abundance of clean energy through wider electrification of the mining fleet and processes.
One such example of this is the installation of a 1,000-meter-long trolley to assist fully-loaded haul trucks out of the pit at Copper Mountain Mining Corp.'s mine in British Columbia.
In addition to lowering the need for consuming the onboard energy source – whether that be electricity, diesel, hydrogen, or even natural gas – the trolley assist also helps loaded trucks race out of the pit at blistering speeds topping 20 miles per hour, which is more than twice the 10-mph lumber of a diesel truck circling its way out of the pit. This equates to shorter duration round trips for each truck, meaning that the trucks can be smaller or less will be needed to deliver the same quantity of ore. And electric trucks would benefit from the ability to boost their battery with a charging connection to the trolley.
"We are proud to be the first open pit mine to commission electric trolley assist haulage in North America," said Copper Mountain Mining President and CEO Gil Clausen. "Through electrification and capacity increases, we are targeting to reduce our carbon intensity by 50 to 70% in the next five to seven years. We are also actively testing and researching renewable diesel, hydrogen, battery, and fuel-cell technology to power our haulage units to achieve our goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2035."
Generating zero-carbon power at mines
While mines like Copper Mountain enjoy the advantage of being plugged into hydropower, many other operations are plugged into electrical grids fed by some mix of coal, gas, nuclear, and renewables. While an increasing amount of low-carbon power is being fed into these grids, this conversion is often not at the pace needed to achieve the climate goals set by mining companies.
As a result, many of these companies are getting directly involved with installing renewable power generation to support their mining operations, whether through installing power plants themselves or entering into an agreement with third-party suppliers of solar, wind, or other low-carbon energy sources.
In addition to being industrial-scale electrical consumers, which helps with the economics, most mining operations have plenty of land to build renewable energy infrastructure such as solar or wind with batteries.
Earlier this year, a joint venture between Barrick Gold Corp. and Newmont Corp., the two largest gold mining companies in the world, announced plans to install 260 megawatts of solar capacity at their enormous gold mining complex in Nevada.
The cadmium-telluride thin-film solar modules they are installing will supply 17% of the energy demands of the Nevada Gold Mines, a JV that produces roughly 3.5 million ounces of gold per year.
"At NGM, we believe that our corporate social responsibility and the profitability of our business go hand in hand," said Nevada Gold Mines Executive Managing Director Greg Walker. "While minimizing the environmental impacts of our operations – we bring sustainable long-term social and economic benefits to Nevada."
Other mining operations that do not benefit from plentiful desert sun or clean grid power are considering wind and even micro or small modular nuclear for power.
Second leg of net-zero race
While decarbonizing electrical supplies and mine site initiatives to more efficiently use that power will likely be enough for mining companies to achieve their CO2 emission targets for this decade, the next leg of the trip to net-zero could be the toughest.
The largest obstacle on this final leg will be eliminating the GHG-puffing, dirt-moving machines that are the icons of modern mines.
While manufacturers are making strides in electrifying underground mining equipment, which tend to be smaller than their surface counterparts, the technologies needed for zero-carbon excavators, shovels, dozers, and haul trucks are still in their infancy.
"Battery technology at the moment has some challenges when dealing with an ultra-class haul truck, where you have a 60-ton battery to power your 400-ton truck," Russell told Metal Tech News.
At this scale, hydrogen shows a lot of promise but is a technology that is even less mature than battery electric.
"I think hydrogen is a little bit further out there before it becomes fully commercial," Russell said. "It is a race."
Not only a race to see which zero-carbon solution reigns supreme but also a sprint to develop a viable technology and then manufacture enough machines to allow mining companies to achieve their net-zero emissions targets by 2050.
Russell, however, has zero doubt that the efforts being made at all levels of the mining sector will ensure success.
"I am absolutely confident that along our pathway as we move the industry to net-zero that the solutions will be there," the global energy transition leader at Partners in Performance said.