Towards the Sustainable Mine of the Future
If it’s not grown, it’s mined. This old adage still holds true for nearly every product that we use on a daily basis, such as the car or bus that got you to work, the copper wiring that’s helping to provide electricity through your building, or the silica in the electronics that you’re using to read this. Minerals and metals extracted from the Earth are so widely used that it is estimated that every American will use over 3 million pounds of metals, minerals, and fuels in his or her lifetime.
Current analysis suggests that, to meet increasing demands due to global rising living standards and a growing population, raw materials extraction will continue or increase for the foreseeable future. Mining will also play an important role in the energy transition, providing the raw materials needed to produce technologies like electric vehicles, batteries, and solar photovoltaics. However, mining is an energy-intensive industry with most of that energy coming in the form of fossil fuels.
While the Paris Agreement calls for limiting global temperature increase to2°C above preindustrial levels, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of the catastrophic consequences that will occur with 2°C of global warming and makes it clear that we must limit our temperature increase to only 1.5°C by the end of the century. This means that if we want mines to be truly sustainable, they need to be on an aggressive de-carbonization pathway sooner rather than later. But getting to the sustainable mine of tomorrow will take changes in technology, and more importantly, creative changes in thinking.
Keeping up with a Constantly Changing World
Facing an increasing pressure from communities, governments, and investors, the mining industry cannot simply continue to operate at the status quo. While these groups are exerting pressure on mines to change, technological advances are starting to enable more change, more rapidly. Prices for solar and wind power have fallen dramatically. The cost of battery energy storage systems, although still prohibitive, is fast following the price trend of solar. Hydrogen technologies are beginning to mature and offer exciting opportunities for de-carbonizing smelting, iron ore reduction, heavy and light transport, and energy storage. Implementing these new technologies can be a competitive advantage, but only if mines are able to act quickly enough to take advantage.
Powering Mines with Clean Energy
How will mines look different in the future? For one thing, they’ll generate their energy through renewable resources. Electricity can be generated through on-site solar, wind, biomass, or hydrogen. Closed mine sites (legacy mines) offer opportunities for brownfield development to site solar, wind, or pumped hydro resources.
According to Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI’s) Renewable Resources at Mines tracker (R2M), which provides sourced data on renewable energy projects sited at mines,1.2gigawatts (GW) of renewables is currently installed and another1GW has been announced—for a capacity of just over 2GW, a small but significant start. Solar-hybrid systems, which offer cost competitive power generation when compared with direct diesel or gas-powered generation, are being installed on remote mines or where grid power is unreliable.
However, we still need more dramatic renewables uptake and emissions reductions.
Transparency and Accountability
Another change will be the adoption of industry-wide standards, as well as a common reporting platform. This will help ensure aggressive targets are set and rapid change occurs. A number of standards and rating systems have already been developed and adopted by industry leaders, and their continued use and proliferation will be vital to mobilizing change.
Some of the major programs include:
International Council on Mining and Metals: an organization comprised of mining companies that have committed to 10 principles and reporting practices focused on sustainable development and improving environmental efforts.
Mining Association of Canada: a group that has been a leader in developing tools and reporting mechanisms for topics such as engaging with communities, ensuring worker safety, and implementing environmental best practices through an initiative known as Towards Sustainable Mining.
Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures: an international group that is bringing to light the threats that mining companies are exposed to due to energy costs and carbon risk.
Science-Based Targets: an initiative of leading global organizations to get companies to commit to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. It is a way for mining companies to set themselves apart in the market by showing long-term commitment to making meaningful changes.
Extracting raw materials is necessary for our economy and our way of life, but it’s also necessary for mines to place themselves on a de-carbonization pathway that achieves standards and emissions targets. It will take incremental steps to move along the de-carbonization pathway and toward the mine of the future but, ultimately, the mine of tomorrow will look very different that it does today.
About the Rocky Mountain Institute;
RMI engages businesses, communities, institutions, and entrepreneurs to accelerate the adoption of market-based solutions that cost-effectively shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. We employ rigorous research, analysis, and whole-systems expertise to develop breakthrough insights. We then convene and collaborate with diverse partners—business, government, academic, nonprofit, philanthropic, and military—to accelerate and scale solutions.
About the Authors;
LeeAnn is the Marketing Manager for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Industry programs, which are focused on reducing carbon emissions in hard-to-abate industries including mining, shipping, trucking, aviation, and methane. Before joining the renewable energy industry, LeeAnn worked in education, helping to increase access to STEM education around the world.
Caitlin is a Master of Environmental Management graduate student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and consultant with Rocky Mountain Institute’s Sunshine for Mines initiative. Her experience covers a variety of organizations, from large, well-established corporations to a small startups. She has also worked with an international team to build and install a wind turbine for an off-the-grid community in Peru. After graduating from Duke, Caitlin intends to apply her skills through an operations role implementing renewable energy, energy efficiency, or storage technologies.
Alastaire is the Operations Leader for the Sunshine for Mines initiative at Rocky Mountain Institute-Carbon War Room. Before joining Sunshine for Mines, Alastaire was the Group Energy Specialist for Gold Fields Limited responsible for guiding the Gold Fields group in energy security planning (including renewables), energy efficiency, and carbon emissions reduction.