Is Mine Electrification a Practical Change or Unrealistic Pipe Dream?

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Practical Switch or Unrealistic Pipe Dream?

Mines around the world are beginning to explore options to electrify the operations of mining companies and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Their motivations are to reduce costs, improve employee wellness and to make more significant contributions towards sustainability. Let’s delve into these rationales.

Economics

Up to a third of the total cost of mining operations is allocated to energy. This means that it is an operations component that is carefully managed. Unfortunately, no level of management can offset the steadily increasing energy costs over the past three decades as the demand for power is growing exponentially as grades are being halved and mines are reaching greater depths.

Employee Health

There has been a massive drive for mining companies to invest more in the technology required to ensure a safer work environment for employees. The safety and wellbeing of workers is of paramount importance and fumes from engines powered by diesel in underground mining facilities are dangerous. The only option mines have is to remove these unhealthy fumes with massive ventilation systems, an operation which is expensive and resource-intensive.

Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the particulates in diesel have been classified in the same deadly class as arsenic, mustard gas and asbestos. This alarming assertion has made it clear that electrification is vital to improve the health of workers. By switching from diesel to electricity, mines will not only be taking care of the health of their workers but will also have the unique opportunity to strengthen their license to operate.

Sustainability

In an era where the call to reduce carbon emissions is becoming louder due to climate change, it makes sense to exchange diesel for electricity – but only if the electricity is derived from renewable sources. Until recently, clean energy has not been a cost-effective option and has therefore not been an option for cost-conscious companies. These days, drastically falling costs in this booming industry has put renewables on track to outperform all other energy sources. Experts now estimate that clean energy may account for up to 60% of all capacity additions in the next 20 years.

Rethink, Redesign, Reskill

While the benefits of electrification are clear, it’s not simply a matter of swapping diesel for electricity and flipping the on-switch. The only way to make it really possible is through a step-by-step approach beginning with rethinking the way mines are designed. Because an electrified mine will operate differently, especially when it comes to advanced technologies, realising the full potential of electrification in mining will require a complete overhaul of how a typical mine operates.
While an electrified mine will need less maintenance and human intervention, using technological advances like the Internet of Things (IoT), automation and drones will need to be carefully planned and rolled out. Not to mention remote-controlled operational systems and autonomous vehicles. This will result in an increased need for digital and data literacy skills and will likely result in:

  • Increased employment.
  • A massive increase in the demand for skills like system analysis and evaluation, mathematics and data analysis.
  • An increase in the need for soft skills like active listening, decision-making, judgement and instructing.
  • A significant decline in skill requirements such as materials extraction, vehicle operations, blast-hole drilling and equipment maintenance.

It’s important to note that the workplace will not necessarily be smaller, but the skillset will certainly be different. An example of this is driverless vehicles. While there will no longer be a requirement for divers with licenses to drive the relevant vehicles, there will be a need to employ workers with digital literacy, technical planning and data processing skills. To make the transition from diesel to electricity possible, employees will need to be open to the shift, have the ability to upskill, reskill and cross-skill.

Investment is Vital

To maintain a competitive advantage in international markets, mining companies will have to invest in an adaptive workforce. This is already underway in companies such as Rio Tinto in Australia who have invested $2 million in vocational training with Resource Industry Collaboration Group who has delivered the first nationally recognised course in automation. This type of commitment is what will drive the next generation of mining sector employees into being ready for the new digital world as it begins to unfold.

How Soon Can We Switch?

After all the required steps are taken to plan for the switch, it is crucial that a phased approach is taken so that technologies can be deployed in stages. Without this approach, the upfront capital investment may be challenging to navigate. Because some of the technologies required for electrification are still in the prototype phase, it’s important for companies to exercise patience – it may take time for these technologies to move from laboratories to being mine-ready. Bearing this in mind, and taking the time to plan effectively, electrification of mines is not only possible, but it is also inevitable.

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