Unlikely bedfellows: Mining and renewable energy

image credit: Land Rover Our Planet

Mining companies are often seen as dinosaurs when it comes to making changes that will benefit the environment, but that perception may be shifting as some companies turn to renewable energy to cut costs and lighten their carbon footprint.

At first blush, mining and renewable energy seem incongruous. Mining's reputation as a voracious consumer of fossil fuels is well deserved, especially surface mining, where diesel-sucking haul trucks perform endless loops to and from gigantic pits scraped ever-deeper by immense earth-moving machines belching greenhouse gases.

Contrast that with solar panel installations, with their acres of gleaming panels and gently humming generators, or wind farms, where silent spinning blades crank out megawatts of emissions-free power.

But as the cost of diesel fuel and electricity continues to rise, mining companies are searching for ways to cut their energy bill, and renewables are looking increasingly attractive. The main reason is cost. Choosing renewable energy, especially in an industrial setting, used to be cost-prohibitive, but that is starting to change, in some cases dramatically.

CleanTechnica reported last week that for systems with the right economies of scale -- 10 megawatts or higher -- solar power can now be generated for between $70 and $100 per megawatt hour. That is four times lower than in 2009. China and the United States both have plans to make solar competitive with coal-powered electricity within a few years.

Another reason is security of supply. Mines are often located in remote areas where grid power is spotty and more costly than in cities. In South Africa, a shortage of power in 2008 caused rolling blackouts, causing several mines to shut down. Two years ago, Egyptian mining company Centamin had to temporarily close its Sukari gold mine due to a dispute with its diesel fuel supplier.

Running a mine on renewables, often in combination with fossil fuels, offers mining companies a way to own and control their own power supplies. Excess power generated by solar and wind at mines can be sold to utility companies, offsetting costs.

Lastly, using renewables in their operations is a way for mining companies to change their reputation as something of eco-pariahs, which can only help their relations with governments and host communities.

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