At IMARC this year I was invited to host a panel discussing the barriers facing the industry in adopting renewable energy. The discussion uncovered four interesting insights, from challenges in transmission and the reality of investment in integrating renewables to the surprising issue of workforce and skills as a looming limitation.
Overcoming Cost Challenges in Integrating Renewables
Integrating renewable power solutions to a mining operation has obvious advantages in emissions reduction and social license. However, these advantages are in some cases weighted with some equally heavy challenges. Implementing renewable power on-site has a two-fold barrier: reliability over a 24/7 demand scenario and return on investment. The reliability challenge is on its way to being solved with the use of batteries and demand loading (up to 80% renewable is now the benchmark), but the return on investment still poses a challenge. While the example given of a 26-year payback period for a 36mW renewable station just three years ago may be a different proposition now, the important point was made about balancing transition with sound investment and what makes operational sense.
Strengthening Grid Reliability
Generating renewable power is a well-established proposition, but often the weak link is transmission, as the power still needs to make it to remote sites that are often on the fringe of the energy grid. The panel discussed the important need to strengthen the energy grid for cost-effective renewable energy adoption in regional mining operations. While this also presents a significant challenge – estimates are that the grid needs to double its current capacity to meet net zero goals – the option of microgrid solutions for mining sites presents an opportunity for the industry reduce reliability on the grid altogether, or to augment the grid with batteries. Downtime costs dollars, so any substitute for gas or diesel power must also provide a reliable solution.
Building a Collaborative Path to Net Zero Mining
It’s difficult to get through any conversation in mining without mentioning Net Zero – and IMARC was no exception. It’s becoming clear that a collaborative approach is required to bridge the gap between achieving net zero emissions and today’s industry operations. A relevant insight from the panel was the importance of interoperability – developing net-zero technologies that aren’t then restricted to applications on just one site. Collaboration is key in interoperability, especially for a whole-of-industry transition.
Harnessing the Power of People and Talent Pipeline
The final, surprising insight from the panel was that of the squeeze for talent being linked intrinsically to the adoption of renewable energy. As attracting and retaining talent to the industry becomes more difficult, sustainable mining practices (including renewable energy adoption) has the added bonus of making a company or an operation attractive to the next generation of talent. One of the panellists gave the example of an operation who implemented a renewable energy solution that was new-to-industry at the time, having the flow-on effect of employees ‘rushing in the door’, proud to be a part of the operation.
On the flip-side of this proposition is the massive talent shortage in the workforce needed for widespread adoption of renewable energy. People will power the energy transition, but those skill sets aren’t yet established in the industry. This is an urgent priority to meet 2030 goals – and beyond.
One of our panelists summarised it well: the issues we’re working to overcome on the road to renewable energy are reliable power, cost, and sustainability, with the extra factor of the war for talent. While these are significant barriers, they are not insurmountable ones. The way forward is possible through collaboration and taking action now, for a balanced approach to renewable energy integration, collaborative change, and attracting the crucial human capital we need to successfully move the mining industry into the future.
Director, Bowen Basin Mining Club