Mining’s transition to renewables: navigating and mitigating potential risks

As the global mining industry undergoes a significant shift toward renewable energy, the Minerals Council of Australia has stood firm on the industry’s ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Replacing current energy sources with renewable energy has been identified as a key action to reduce emissions at scale, and there is growing pressure from stakeholders and government to embrace cleaner alternatives.

The benefits of reduced carbon emissions, improved energy security and reduced energy costs come hand-in-hand with new challenges.

As the industry embraces technologies such as solar and battery storage and electrification more, understanding these risks and implementing the appropriate strategies will minimise the impact to businesses, assisting operators in avoiding the potential downtime, property loss and other consequences caused by weather events, fires or electrical faults.

Electrification: transforming the power landscape

The migration from diesel to electric vehicles and equipment in mining has become a priority for many operators, with research showing fully electrified mines could see a reduction of their carbon footprints by up to 80 per cent.

Electrification can also reduce energy and maintenance costs (by up to 70 per cent and 30 per cent respectively), while electric equipment has the potential for operational improvements, including steeper ramp designs, lower stripping ratios, faster cycle times and less frequent breakdowns.

Just as diesel trucks and equipment have associated risks, so too do their electric counterparts. Improvements to electrical infrastructure – including substations and transformers – will often be required, so the risks surrounding these components need to be considered.

Ways to mitigate risk include avoiding certain combustible materials during construction of electrical infrastructure, considering the fire risk mitigation strategies surrounding mineral oil-filled transformers (including where they are located) and ensuring adequate and appropriate fire protection and emergency response strategies.

FM Global’s Property Loss Prevention Data Sheets incorporate nearly 200 years of property loss experience, research and engineering results, and provide a wealth of guidance on mitigating electrification risk and building business resilience.

Battery storage systems and the safe integration of li-ion technologies

Many of the risks associated with electrification also arise from rapidly developing battery storage lithium-ion (li-on) technologies. Concerns around battery fires in electric vehicles (EVs) are widely covered in the media.

However, research suggests the risk of fire in diesel and petrol vehicles is up to 20 times higher – meaning risk mitigation for these technologies requires careful research, engineering and analysis.

FM Global is currently driving research to better understand the evolving risks and mitigation strategies for clients embracing battery storage technology.

With fire a main concern, key considerations include fire protection measures, the construction (materials and location) of underground and aboveground charging stations, emergency response planning and appropriate fire response equipment.

FM Global already provides guidance on mitigation of risks around stationary li-ion battery energy storage systems (ESS) (FMDS5-33) in addition to guidance on electric battery charging (FMDS7-39) and electric vehicle parking (FMDS 7-15), and the company continues to develop its property loss data sheets guided by its own research and testing.

Solar PV systems: addressing climate and weather-related risks

Ground mount solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have quickly become a key component of the renewable energy transition for Australian mining companies, with systems now more efficient, innovative and modular than ever before.

Australia also has the world’s highest levels of solar radiation per square metre, and with the abundance of land available in mining regions, ground mount PV systems provide an ideal solution for mining offsets and onsite land rehabilitation.

Climate hazards – in particular hail, bushfires and cyclones – are a key risk for ground mount PV systems. Damage from weather events can heavily impact electricity supply and operational efficiency, causing major disruption to businesses, while fault identification and replacing panels can lead to supply chain issues and delays in repairs.

Thankfully, many of these issues can be mitigated by understanding the proposed location; geography and surrounding vegetation; and technology and equipment required in the design process before a system is installed.

For example, customised mounting systems can be engineered to withstand high winds, positioning of panels can mitigate risks from floods or bushfire in disaster-prone areas and more resilient panels can be used to reduce hail damage risk.

Through careful design and construction, and the implementation of inspection and maintenance programs in line with manufacturer recommendations, operators can ensure risk remains low and managed.

FM Global has developed PV panel and mounting system standards, as well as a new Australian hail map to be released in 2024 that can help identify practical solutions for solar farms while also providing a level of certainty for clients outside of high risk hail-prone areas.

As mining companies embrace cleaner energy alternatives, a commitment to understanding and managing these risks is paramount. Ongoing research, knowledge-sharing and a proactive stance in risk management are essential for a successful and resilient transition to renewable energy.

This editorial was developed in partnership with FM Global operations chief engineer Mike Hunneyball. 

For more information, visit the FM Global website.

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