Is Renewable Energy the Future of Mining?

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Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
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The remote and energy-intensive nature of mining operations make them ideal candidates for the use of renewable power sources.

Efforts by the Chilean mining industry to power its operations using renewable energy have been hailed as the future trajectory of development for the global resources sector.

While Chile is one of the world’s major mining economies, host to vast deposits of copper as well as significant reserves of gold, silver, molybdenum and iron, the development of these mineral resources has long been hampered by their location in remote and elevated parts of the country.

Mining operations are energy intensive, yet frequently situated in remote areas at significant remove from conventional sources of power. In the case of Chile, this dilemma is further compounded by the extreme aridity of the Norte Grande region in which its mining activities are concentrated, as well as its high elevation above sea level.

The aridity of the local climate necessitates the piping of desalinated water from the Pacific Ocean over the Andes mountains, while the mountainous nature of the surrounding terrain makes it a costly and arduous task to transport diesel fuel to mining sites.

In order to deal with these difficult conditions, Chilean copper titan Codelco has turned to renewable energy to power its Gabriela Mistral oxide copper mine, situated approximately 120 kilometres to the south of Calama in the Atacama Desert.

The Pampa Elvira project, which commenced operation last year, is one of the world’s largest solar power facilities, consisting of 2,620 photovoltaic panels covering over 36,000 square metres of surface area in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

The solar facility benefits from the extremely aridity of its desert location and is capable of generating around 51,800 megawatt hours of power each year, enough to supply 85 per cent of the copper mine’s energy requirements.

Mike Elliot

Mike Elliot

Speaking to The Australian, EY global mining and metals leader Mike Elliott lauded the use of solar power by Codelco to power its mining operations, and recommended that members of the resources sector in Australia follow suit.

According to Elliott, while some members of the engineering profession are wary of renewable energy because of its reputation for being costly and unreliable, rapid technological advances are making it the best and most economical option for powering remote mining operations.

Elliott expects to see further technological improvements to renewable energy over the next few years to have a transformative impact on its uptake by the resources sector.

Key amongst them will be improvements to both the size and cost of battery technology, which will dramatically raise the reliability of solar and wind power by enabling them to better store any surplus energy.

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