Rio’s Weipa solar plant begins operation

First Solar, Rio Tinto, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) have announced Australia’s first commercial diesel displacement solar plant has successfully commenced operation at Rio Tinto’s Weipa bauxite mine.

The Weipa Solar Plant will generate approximately 2,800 megawatt hours of electricity per year for the mine and facilities, as well as the township.

Designed by First Solar with their FuelSmart solutions, the plant hybridises photovoltaic (PV) systems with a fossil fuel engine generator to provide optimal fuel savings at no cost to system reliability.  First Solar’s Regional Manager for Asia Pacific, Jack Curtis, said mining companies are becoming more conscious of their environmental profile, and the decreasing cost of solar is making it an attractive option for operatory.

Curtis highlighted the impact of the solar plant for pioneering the use of solar in mining, “The significance of the Weipa Solar Plant is that it provides the opportunity to demonstrate that PV-diesel hybrid projects can also be as reliable as stand-alone diesel-powered generation.”

The energy from the solar plant is expected to reduce Weipa’s diesel usage at its power stations by 600,000 litres of fuel annually, slashing Weipa’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 1,600 tonnes every year.

Ivor Frischknecht, ARENA’s CEO said “this is the first time a remote Australian mining operation has been supplied with power from solar PV on such a scale.”

“The success of phase one is set to create a precedent for industry by demonstrating that solar PV is a viable option for powering off-grid locations, like mine sites, in Australia.”

ARENA contributed an initial $3.5 million for the project, with a further $7.8 million available for an optional second phase. The second phase would include a storage compartment and have the potential to save approximately 2,300,000 litres of diesel on average each year, reducing Weipa’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 6,100 tonnes annually.

ARENA is also funding Sandfire Resource’s construction of a $40 million solar plant at its Degrussa Copper Mine.

Rio Tinto will purchase the energy produced from First Solar’s 18,000 PV modules under a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement. General Manager, Weipa Operations, Gareth Manderson said that the agreement is an “opportunity to trial the introduction of an alternative power source such as a solar plant into a remote electrical network like the one here in Weipa”.

A report on global trends in renewable energy found that a record number of wind and solar systems were installed in 2014. Global investment in renewable power was $270.2 billion in 2014, a 17 per cent increase which marked the first period of growth in three years. Solar energy itself experienced 29 per cent growth. Within the United Kingdom, demand for renewable energy eclipsed coal-fired power, reaching a quarter of total electricity generation, while coal holds approximately a fifth of the market.

EY’s Global Cleantech Centre found that mining companies are turning to renewable sources as they face pressure from consumers, governments and rising fuel prices. Renewable resources offer reliable and cost-effective forms of energy, particularly in remote locations.

Curtis believes that the Weipa Solar Plant has the potential to compete with fossil fuels as it ramps up maximum production in 15 years.