Advancements in technology, achievements in science, and a vision for a sustainable future have ushered in a new era in the mining industry, and the transformation of the sector has begun with the electrification, digitalization, and automation of mining operations. Currently underway, the transition to off-grid mining and battery storage, together with the use of renewable energy to power operations, is demonstrating that the mining industry can reverse the negative public perception of its reliance on fossil fuels.
In Africa, the driving motivational force for the electrification of the mining industry comes from the incentive to increase the efficiency of operations, thus maximizing output, and matching other global operations that have initiated the implementation of digitalization and automation. Incorporation of new technologies into an industry as reliant on state-of-the-art machinery as mining is critical for companies to modernize their operations and meet increasingly stringent environmental and sustainability goals, while remaining competitive and relevant.
John Manuell, Manager of the Process Industries Division for ABB South Africa, shared his thoughts in an opinion piece for BusinessDay, and noted that the electrification, digitalization, and automation of mines in South Africa has the potential to increase operational safety, sustainability, and the operational lifespans of mines, offering benefits such as increased productivity, the sustainable use of non-renewable resources, and may result in a decrease of operational input costs.
“Together, these three trends are shaping what we call “the mine of the future,” he stated, adding that “they offer real possibilities, which were not available previously, to overcome today’s challenges and ensure a bright future for the mining industry.”
He indicated that the mining industry is already well underway in its transition from diesel-derived power sources to the use of electric systems at mining operations. Some of the strongest incentives for the electrification of the mining industry is the lowering of diesel-related costs, the reduction of carbon emissions, improvement of operational workflow, as well as lessening the likelihood of onsite injury.
Electrification of Transportation
When compared to other industries, the mining sector has been reluctant to adopt electrification due to its historical reliance on diesel for the operation and powering of heavy machinery, however, with its delivery to the typically remote locations of mining sites, the costs of servicing such equipment, as well as the repair and replacement of diesel-powered vehicles and machinery – for which extensive maintenance is often required – companies have taken note of the benefits of an energy transition.
Energy costs account for approximately 30% of the average mining company’s total cost base. Therefore, the transition from diesel to electric or hybrid-electric is expected to bring advantages, not only in terms of CO2 emissions reduction, but also in terms of helping industry-related companies manage costs.
Newer generations of diesel-electric trucks have been introduced to the industry as a commercially viable way to move towards the electrification of mining in the near future. The average mining truck typically carries between 3,000 and 5,000 liters of diesel and burns roughly 300-400 liters every hour. The introduction of on-trolley electric vehicles, which only uses approximately 30-50 liters per hour, has the potential to save as much as 350 liters of diesel for every hour of use. The transition towards electric/hybrid-electric vehicles will also see an improvement in the efficiency and speed of haulage trucks, which has the potential to result in higher operational throughput for a mine.
Open-Pit Mining, Machinery, and the Electric Revolution
The reduction of carbon emissions through the process of open-pit mining operations has become an ambition for many in the mining industry, with trolley assist systems being installed to limit diesel usage, reduce costs and improve efficiency. Incentivized by tax advantages and premiums offered by energy suppliers, trolley lines have made a strong resurgence in the industry in recent years, offering many cost saving benefits and the reduction of CO2 emissions.
While energy sources that contribute greatly to carbon emissions generally constitute the cheapest forms of energy generation, operators have begun to take note of their secondary costs, with the electrification of mines having the potential to incur lower expenses due to their minimal maintenance requirements, therefore leading to a reduction of operational downtime, which is common among diesel-powered machinery due to the extensive maintenance required for their internal mechanisms that are prone to breakdown. It has been noted that hybrid-electric vehicles are more robust and less fastidious than combustion engine-powered vehicles.
The reluctance of many mining companies to move towards electrification comes from the perception that such a drastic transition will result in the loss of jobs while digitalization and automation replaces and reduces the need for manual labor. Therefore, for mining companies to demonstrate their commitment to electrification, a reevaluation of current skills sets will need to be considered as, according to strategy and consulting service company, Accenture, the future mining workforce is likely to change by up to 77% by 2024, which will be driven primarily by the adoption of new technologies. As such, there will be a shift in the skills profile for future workers who will need to manage and engage the electric transformation in the industry.
While fossil fuels have, for decades, been the traditional method through which the mining industry acquires energy, electrification, digitalization, and automation are considered the ways of the future for mining industry and has been seen as a method through which companies may improve on-site safety, lower operational costs, and reduce harmful carbon emissions.
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