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Mining companies are well-positioned to implement cost-saving and efficient renewable energy solutions, provided the correct steps are taken right from the beginning. This is the view of Nick Oosthuizen, MD of energy efficiency consultancy firm, Inframid.

Oosthuizen starts by saying that in recent years, there has been a concerted effort by mining companies to realise the goals of the Paris Agreement and target net zero emissions by 2050. Furthermore, he believes that the one thing that works in the favour of mines when it comes to implementing renewable energy options is a constant baseload.

“Being large energy users, mines have a constant baseload for 24 hours, and if you have a constant baseload, it becomes easy to plan a feasible renewable energy solution because it is predictable and you can plan each load segment accordingly and implement the most effective solution,” he explains.

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According to Oosthuizen, the first port of call before implementing a renewable energy source is a comprehensive feasibility study, as this will help companies conceptualise their energy efficiency options, based on realistic and actual information. “In addition, the detail of the total load must be interrogated before deciding on the merits of investing in a renewable energy solution.”

Furthermore, analysing the total load can also reveal opportunities to save on costs by managing different loads optimally. “It is only once you understand the different sections of the load that you can actually start planning more efficiently and making sure you have sufficient sources of energy to cater for various baseload segments. Also, with this baseload, you can provide the correct capital output and turn it into real power savings,” Oosthuizen states.

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Now is the time to plan

No doubt, unreliable power supplies and a move towards a green economy have strengthened the cause for renewable energies. However, while the intent may be there from mining companies to realise these goals, some of their plans have been thwarted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, all is not lost says Oosthuizen. The focus during these turbulent times should be on planning, a crucial step in preparing for a smooth implementation stage. He readily admits that the transition to renewable energy solutions has been slow, primarily due to cost implications and also because different companies have different approaches. At present, it is the major mining houses, who perhaps have stronger balance sheets, that are taking the lead on energy efficiency.

That said, Oosthuizen believes that there will be a gradual uptake in renewable energies across the mining spectrum, with a variety of options now becoming available. “There are now a number of preferred energy options for mines. If you focus on renewable energy, it depends on location. For example, you can make use of wind energy where it is in abundance.

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“Solar is also very common for mines in Africa and some are now starting to put up major solar farms. In addition, biodiesel is being used to replace diesel while other options include geothermal energy from below the ground, hydropower, hydrogen and pure cell energy.”

In addition, Oosthuisen says that the payback period for investing in renewable energy is decreasing. He points out that the break-even amount used to be around nine years but in recent times, this has been reduced to around four years.

Now, while the idea of a mining operation running on 100% renewable energy is not that far-fetched, Oosthuizen believes that this is still a long way off. It is for this reason that more feasible energy storage is pivotal. “For example, when we talk about solar energy, it is something that is there for only a certain part of the day. As such, it is difficult to fully convert to solar energy without having some kind of storage facility,” he explains.

He adds that globally, it is still a struggle to get to access to cost-effective storage facilities and this makes it difficult to run on complete renewable energy sources.

The storage issue aside, Oosthuizen believes that with lower prices and more options available, renewable energy solutions will add value to mining companies by decreasing their reliance on traditional energy methods and creating more environmentally sustainable operations.