We all know the drill. Every year starts with experts from across the industry sharing their thoughts and predictions for the year ahead, writes Aggreko Africa Managing Director John Lewis.

2020 has been no different and neither has the story with a consensus view that the volatility we’ve seen in recent years will continue into the new decade. With persistently low commodity prices, emerging technologies creating demand for different metals and minerals, and greater pressure for carbon reduction, miners have had to adapt quickly in response to the realities of this operating environment.

But perhaps it is time that we change how we interpret this outlook. While it is undeniable that we are entering the 2020s with the need to overcome a number of challenges, as an industry we should change the narrative and consider the opportunities that come with this change. Digitalisation enables greater efficiency while the shift towards lower carbon power has the potential to significantly reduce operating costs.

This is a time of significant transformation for the industry as the traditional operating model is turned on its head. But with mining having an absolutely integral role in future global development, the opportunities that come with this are boundless and should not be overlooked.

Responding to the demand for greener operations

The energy transition is impacting every sector in every market, from food manufacturing to utilities, from Australia to Africa, as decision makers explore ways to make their operations greener and more sustainable. With the mining industry estimated to account for 6.2% of the total global energy consumption[1], our industry in particular is under the spotlight to put in place measures to address our carbon footprint.

The reliability of renewable energy sources is a constant challenge for miners looking to integrate clean energy into operations. Unexpected disruption to power supply, even if only for a short period of time, can have significant cost implications for miners. A balance needs to be found where miners can integrate green energy without fears of intermittency.

Hybrid energy solutions, which provide combined solar and thermal power optimised with batteries, provide reliability of supply to ensure productivity is unaffected while supporting efforts to reduce overall carbon emissions. As well as minimising a miner’s carbon footprint, integrating renewables can have a positive impact on both efficiency and the balance sheet as the price of renewable energy and batteries continues to decline, For remote mines for example, hybrid power solutions can be up to 30 per cent cheaper than running thermal generators alone.

This is becoming reality for the Syama gold mining complex in southern Mali. Aggreko recently signed a contract with Resolute to support its ambitions to reduce carbon emissions and improve overall efficiency for the site. Once installed, Aggreko will operate and maintain a 40 MW thermal power plant and a 10 MW battery storage system, with a further 20 MW of solar power planned in 2023. The hybrid solution will reduce Syama’s power costs by an estimated 40%. Once all the renewable power sources are fully installed it will also reduce carbon emissions by approximately 20%.

And this isn’t just limited to the African market. Last year, Aggreko began the construction of one of the world’s largest renewable energy microgrids for Gold Fields’ Granny Smith gold mine in Western Australia. The 8 MW solar power generation system integrates 20,000 solar panels supported by a 2 MW /1 MWh battery. The microgrid is projected to reduce fuel consumption by 10-13% – the equivalent of removing 2,000 cars from the road – and produce about 18 GWh of clean energy per year.

Embracing innovation

Technology is driving greater efficiency for mining operations. One such example is the integration of remote monitoring which has the ability to foresee issues that could have a detrimental impact on production. At Aggreko, our team of expert engineers’ review data from more than 10,000 generators located across the world to track fuel levels, equipment running times, usage and power loads, maintenance plans and emergencies. This data gives us the ability to improve both fuel and equipment efficiency for our customers to ensure they have in place the energy solution which best suits their needs.

In Australia, for the Granny Smith mine, the solar, thermal and battery storage assets will be seamlessly integrated and managed by Aggreko’s control software platform. This system will ensure maintenance of full system availability and optimise the lifetime of existing thermal assets.

A more flexible approach for a rapidly changing operating environment

Advances in technology are also driving change for the mining industry in terms of the pool of metals and minerals that are considered to be a worthwhile investment. The growing popularity of electric vehicles is leading to an increase in the need for cobalt, lithium and nickel, which are important component parts of lithium-ion batteries.

That said, there’s an element of risk in being ahead of the curve and responding to the latest technologies as and when they emerge. There’s a chance that the components of technology shift in another direction or consumer preferences change, leaving miners with an expensive infrastructure in place for a seemingly worthless commodity. Renting equipment to support operations can reduce the exposure of miners to changing trends with no upfront costs and ability to respond more nimbly to the ebbs and flows of this rapidly changing market.

Persistent low commodity prices mean that miners are under more pressure to keep a careful eye on the balance sheet. But with the need to also meet carbon emissions targets, action still needs to happen. The integration of renewable energy into power solutions for mines can result in significant CAPEX investment.

Rental power provides mining companies with greater flexibility. A rental power model allows miners to respond to the challenge of decarbonisation keep energy costs competitive and only require an outlay of OPEX, rather than CAPEX. This means that miners have greater flexibility to respond to the rapidly evolving market whilst still delivering against their carbon emissions targets.

Mining in 2030

Exactly what the mining sector will look like in 2030 is still unknown. But what we can say with some certainty is that it will be markedly different from the one in which we operate today. Rather than view this transition with scepticism, as an industry we should embrace the opportunities that are a by-product this change. With the chance to reduce carbon emissions, improve margins and drive efficiency as a result, what’s not to like?

[1] https://www.aggreko.com/en-sg/aggreko-perspectives/the-energy-transition-addressing-the-challenge-in-mining

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