Reliable, low cost power is taken for granted in most of the developed world. As society’s fascination with de-carbonization grows, the debate becomes more intense, especially for the mining business. Mines and mills produce a viable product, provide meaningful, high-paying jobs, and they also consume a lot of power.
Many mining companies produce fuels, such as coal, oil sands, and uranium, as well as the metals and minerals that would be consumed for renewable power generation.
In some parts of the world, coal has become a four letter word and E&MJ has a fair share of readers who are not happy with that connotation. Proposed environmental policies and a preponderance of natural gas have already created a huge shift in coal consumption and production in the U.S. The U.S. coal industry seems to be following in the footsteps of the U.K., and similar changes are taking place in Canada.
In this edition of E&MJ, the energy topic surfaces several times. In “Discussing Energy Options” (See p. 58), Simon Walker reports on views expressed and experiences presented at a recent London conference on the role of renewables. While proponents of renewables showcase some of the steps the mining industry has taken, mining executives provide a sobering dose of reality. Renewable energy is expensive. It requires a significant investment that may or may not be recouped. Energy storage is a problem as the systems cannot run 24/7. At a time when mining companies are looking to lower costs and diesel fuel prices are relatively low, mining companies are finding it hard to justify renewables unless they are forced or offered subsidies.
Of course, if a mining company operates in a place where the sun shines, the wind blows and the water flows, why not take advantage of the advances in renewable energy and offset some of the mine’s power demand? One of the presentations at the upcoming Euro Mine Expo (see p. 65) discusses the possibility of a fossil-free mine. Similarly, in early April, Swedish Steel AB, Swedish iron-ore miner LKAB and Sweden’s power provider, Vattenfall, announced they were launching an initiative to solve the carbon dioxide (CO2) problem in the Swedish steel industry. Together, they will work to develop a steel production process that emits water rather than CO2. They will likely succeed as long as they can produce steel cost-effectively. Their ace in the hole is Vattenfall, which produces about half of Sweden’s electricity from emission-free sources, such as nuclear and hydropower.
Renewable energy represents the icing on the cake. Some countries, however, have no cake and renewables are simply not an option. The developing world needs access to affordable electricity. Some of these regions mine or import carbon-based fuels and they couldn’t care less what the greens are espousing from their ivory towers. Others would like to do the politically correct thing, but they know the high cost of renewable power will eat into the profit margins of factories and mines, and the social benefit the grid provides.
Should we throw the baby out with the bath water or should utilities invest in clean sensible power from fossil fuels?
What you believe matters. Alarmists preach conservation, while deniers proclaim man-made global warming as bunk. The debate has become as polarized as politics. As mining engineers develop and maintain megaprojects, they have to make the most sensible economic choice while consciously following their beliefs.
Sadly, the facts are often clouded in misinformed beliefs rather than science.