The case for mine electrification is about more than technology advancement. It also has the potential to contribute to the sustainability of the industry.
All-electric mines don’t seem so far-fetched when the environmental pressures being faced by the mining industry are considered.
A negative public perception towards the mining sector can in part be attributed to its links to fossil fuels.
As fund managers and investors are pushing towards more ethical investment choices, mining’s reputation is an increasingly important factor driving investor decisions.
More than ever, the sector’s reputation is playing a role in its ability to secure funding and deliver growth aspirations.
However, this comes as a double-edged sword. Public expectations can also give electrification projects a higher priority in the sector, according to ABB vice president of global mining Max Luedtke.
“Mining has a bad reputation because of what it’s done in the past, but mining itself is a very important business in our society,” Luedtke tells Australian Mining at the 2019 International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne.
“Even if we want to go all-electric (as a society), our electric cars will need more mines. But we need more mines in the right way.”
ABB manager mining automation in Western Australia, Richard Marsh believes major companies understand the importance of electrification as they work towards carbon neutral operations by 2050.
It is “a very big commitment but a very serious commitment,” Marsh says. “People are being recruited into roles that are driving mining companies to have that capability.”
The conversion to an all-electric mine makes business sense for a number of reasons.
Even though polluting energy sources are the cheapest today, operators often forget to account for their secondary cost in calculating the total price tag.
“If you have a fair energy price and calculate all the costs of your energy as well as its environmental costs, including the cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants, an all-electric mine becomes very economic,” ABB global manager for automation and digital in mining Martin Knabenhans says.
“The efficiency of an electric drive train is also much, much higher than that of a combustion engine. And quite quickly an all-electric mine becomes sustainable.”
Electric machines also incur lower costs because they require less maintenance and therefore reduce equipment downtime.
In fact, a prevailing benefit of electric machinery that was highlighted during IMARC was equipment availability.
Diesel-powered mining trucks can result in excessive downtime due to internal mechanisms related to the gear box, lubrication system and engine that are prone to breakdowns.
An electric-driven train, on the other hand, is much more robust than a combustion engine-powered drive train, Knabenhans, who has 29 years of mechanical experience with ABB, says.
Knabenhans has observed the potential of all-electric mines in North America and Europe, where they facilitate close to 100 per cent renewable energy production.
“If your electricity is produced by fossil fuel, then you’re not in the right place from an ecological point of view,” Knabenhans says.
“Our mission at ABB is electrify whatever your needs be. We are in a very good position to electrify trolley lines and use different charging technologies, such as flash charging and high-power charging, and to manage power.”
ABB has introduced flash charging for buses in Geneva over the past decade. The vehicles are charged every three stops to keep them going all day.
While buses are much smaller than most mining vehicles, the translation of technology is allowing ABB to help mining companies make a transition.
“There are things that mining companies can already do today to make a change towards electrification, for example, by using electric buses to transport workers into mine sites before companies put a big investment in electric trucks,” Switzerland-based Ludtke says.
“A mining operation in Canada is thinking about doing this. Mine workers will realise that electric buses work. The buses are much quieter, allowing them to read, talk and do other things.
“Small steps such as this change their mentality on what an electric mine is. We can’t just talk, we also need to show action. That’s what will drive this transformation.”
The impact of mine electrification will not only be enjoyed by the current era of mine workers but also future generations.
Mining is still traditional, yet it will remain highly relevant for many decades. And it is the sector’s responsibility to push electrification to make the industry sustainable, Ludtke concludes.