Mining giant Rio Tinto has unveiled a groundbreaking plan to use a solar PV plant to provide electricity to one of its key bauxite operations in Queensland.

As part of efforts to achieve energy savings in Australia’s high-cost operating environment, Rio Tinto will oversee the construction of a solar power facility to provide electricity to its bauxite mining operations in the far north of Queensland.

Rio Tinto currently uses two diesel engine plants to provide 36 megawatts of electricity to its bauxite mine near Weipa, on the Gulf of Carpentaria coast of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula.

The $23 million Weipa Solar Photovoltaic project will see Rio Tinto supplement these two diesel engine plants with 1.7 megawatts of energy from a solar power facility.

During the initial phase of the project, the solar PV plant will be capable of supplying 20 per cent of the mine’s daytime power demand. Following the conclusion of the initial phase, Rio Tinto will also have the option of expanding the solar plant’s capacity by a further five megawatts.

The solar plant will be built by US-based First Solar, with work slated to commence later this year and maximum output expected in 15 years’ time.

First Solar is considered one of the world’s leading solar photovoltaic companies, and was listed as America’s fastest-growing technology firm in 2011 by Forbes magazine. The company has a portfolio of projects spanning the globe, with operations in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

According to First Solar vice president Jack Curtis, the construction of the Weipa plant will mark the first time a major resource undertaking in Australia makes use of solar power on a significant scale.

Curtis said the decision was motivated by rising costs for diesel fuel, as well as by declines in the prices for solar PV technology, which have made the latter an increasingly economical option.

With large-scale solar PV systems capable of reducing costs by between 60 to 70 per cent, Curtis speculates that the technology has major potential to replace diesel fuel at remote mining sites.

“It is really reaching a point now where it can be competitive with traditional sources of fossil fuel,” he said.