In an Australian first, a Western Australian mining company is planning a mine completely powered by solar and wind power, in the next three years.
Galaxy Resources’ Mt Cattlin lithium mine currently uses renewable energy sources for up to 15 per cent of its total power, using solar tracking panels developed by Swan Energy.
The panels at the mine, near Ravensthorpe, about 540 kilometres from Perth, follow the sun throughout the day and provide 15 per cent more power than conventional systems.
Using the renewable energy already saves the company 200 tonnes of carbon emissions each year and Galaxy’s managing director Iggy Tan said the company will take advantage of the strong and consistent winds around the Mt Cattlin mine as it moves towards a 100 per cent renewable energy-powered site.
He said they intend to install three wind turbines, each with a 1.2 megawatt capacity, as well as a solar power system with a one megawatt capacity to power the site.
Carbon tax sparks interest in renewable energy
The latest developments from Galaxy follow increasing concern from communities, environmentalists and mining companies about the amount of emissions released into the atmosphere from mining and construction projects.
Most mining operations in Western Australia are powered by diesel and coal, which release high levels of pollution, and under the federal government’s carbon emissions tax, many companies are looking at ways to cut costs and pollution with renewable energy.
Previously, many companies have shied away from renewable energy, due to its inconsistency and unreliability, but the creators of the solar tracking panels, Swan Energy say it can remove those problems.
Managing director James Rhye told the ABC the proposed carbon tax has inspired an increase in the number of companies in the resource industries interested in his using Swan products.
Currently, most of his clients are from the education and public sector, but he expects the resource industry to become his biggest client.
"Before the carbon tax discussions, we had about one call per month but now we have about five calls per day, from right around Australia," he said.
"I believe once the carbon tax is introduced the industry will re-focus on renewable energy delivery and many people will move towards solar and wind power."
"At the moment a renewable energy system is far more expensive than diesel or gas power but once a carbon tax is implemented, it makes it quite comparable."
The cost of renewable energy
The shift to renewable energies would have a capital cost between $25 and $30 million, Galaxy estimates, but it says the cost should be seen as an investment for a company looking to source externally.
Tan said the investor would fund the energy system, before selling the power to Galaxy and potentially to nearby Ravensthorpe.
"I think up-front there is always a larger capital cost for these sorts of systems," he said.
Galaxy is currently in discussions with a number of potential investors who have shown an interest, according to Rhee.
The company estimates the costs of using renewable energy would be recovered within seven years, and Rhee said the carbon tax, the energy source is becoming increasingly attractive.
"Renewable energy will make commercial sense and resources companies will want an economic solution," he said.
Tan agrees that companies are looking towards removing their carbon footprint, especially with the proposed carbon tax’s expected impact on business.
"I think companies are being pro-active about being sustainable and where they can are reducing their carbon footprint but obviously the prospect of a carbon tax is one of the important parameters to consider," he said.
He also said more mining companies are lokoing towards renewable energy, following Galaxy’s decision to go that way.
"Since we have had our facilities, there have been more and more inquires from mining companies and I think that is important; obviously it’s a cheaper energy source but it also reduces the amount of carbon generated into the atmosphere."
Tan did say that the Mt Cattlin mine is in a fortunate position with its constant strong winds, and other sites would still have to deal with the unreliability of renewable energy if they weren’t in a similar location, and also raised some issues concerning solar power.
"Obviously the major issue with solar generation is the ability to continue to generate power at night when the sun is not shining," he said.
"We already have a diesel generator on site, so we would use that as a back up power supply in case there were any disruptions to the flow of the renewable energy."
Moving towards more reliable renewable energy
The director of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy, Damian Callachor confirmed to the ABC that a major issue for mining companies is the reliability of renewable energy
"There are some real practical and regulatory barriers to how companies in remote areas, far removed from electricity transmission grids, can use renewable technologies," he said.
"Obviously there is a need for large scale industrial equipment to have a consistent base load of power or energy supply.
"The equipment is damaged if there is a sudden drop in the power being provided to the machinery, like wind for example, perhaps during the night it may fall up or down.
"These are the sorts of issues that the industry is keen to work on."
Swan Energies are currently investing great amounts of time and money on developing technology to capture excess wind and solar energy to store in large scale batteries.
"We hope to have the technology available in the next five years," he said.
"This would a go a long way to improving the reliability of renewables."
Rhee believes Australian conditions are perfect for renewable energies and they will be successful in the industry.
"Australia has the longest sunshine hours and has weather patterns that see consistent winds blow, particularly in WA."