At first, solar power and mining wouldn't seem like easy companions. Whereas solar is the best-known form of renewable energy, mining is closely associated with the extractive industries for nonrenewable resources such as coal. Moreover, solar and coal in particular have been going in opposite directions in recent years within major markets like the U.S.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal's share of the country's electric grid power source mix peaked around 1990 and has declined ever since, finally being overtaken by natural gas around 2016. Meanwhile, non-hydroelectric renewables, including solar, went from virtually nothing in 1990 to eight percent of the total by 2016.
All the same, more mining projects – whether for coal, aluminum, lithium or any other critical natural resource – are now relying on solar power to keep the lights on. What do mining organizations gain from solar? Let's look at some of their key operational requirements to understand why solar is often a good fit, usually as part of a hybrid system.
Minimizing fuel costs
The remote locations of many mines are often miles from the nearest pipeline or electrical transmission line. Accordingly, there is widespread reliance on diesel, although natural gas is another viable option. Both incur significant costs:
- For diesel, trucks must transport it over potentially long distances and hazardous terrains.
- For natural gas, expensive and potentially leaky pipelines must be constructed to deliver it to the site.
Beyond the transportation costs themselves, there are issues stemming from environmental regulation (e.g., governing spills) and volatile commodities markets for fossil fuels. Solar provides a simpler, cleaner alternative that does not compromise on reliability.
More specifically, solar requires no geographically extensive delivery networks, and it also reduces any exposure to possible carbon taxes down the road. In Australia, a solar plant built in 2015 to serve a major bauxite mine displaced 600,000 liters of diesel usage per year, leading to a drop in greenhouse gases comparable to removing 700 cars from the road.
Off-grid power availability
Mines require dependable 24/7 baseload power supplies. Although the variability of sun and wind power have in the past limited their roles within mining, advances in storage technology as well as changes in energy economics (i.e., solar becoming more cost-effective and offering better return on investment while fuel prices fluctuate sharply) now make renewable resources prime candidates to replace extensive diesel- and natural gas-based setups.
In recent years, energy storage has come a long way, making offgrid solar photovoltaic (PV) systems more practical than ever before. Xcel Energy, the largest utility in Colorado, released a report in December 2017 illustrating that bids for renewable energy projects – even solar PV ones including battery banks for storage – were far less expensive than expected.
The median bid for a solar project that included storage was only $36 per megawatt-hour (Mwh). That's lower than the $45 per Mwh that Tucson Electric Power achieved for a solar-plus-storage project that made waves in 2017.
For off-grid mining operations, solar is an excellent option for a power source that can run sustainably in isolation. It helps fulfill demanding power requirements without introducing the technical complexity and high costs associated with traditional fossil fuel-based energy sources.
Challenging conditions and terrains
Mines are harsh environments. The particulate matter, along with fluctuating temperatures and high levels of noise in the background, have long required specialized technologies. For example, mining organizations are typically heavily reliant on industrial Ethernet solutions that go beyond the characteristics of normal networking.
Likewise, they need assurances against possible blackouts/brownouts and other technical glitches, which can sideline production and lead to shortages of important minerals. Solar systems have already been optimized for multiple terrains and have fewer complications than traditional power infrastructure in terms of the extent of their size and vulnerability to market-driven fluctuations.
Trina Solar: Trusted provider of smart energy solutions for mines and other use cases
For more than 20 years, Trina Solar has specialized in developing the highest quality solar PV panels for commercial and utility-scale projects. With the launch of our integrated TrinaPro solution, we are taking the next step in delivering a world-leading combination of technology and service. Learn more on our products page.
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