BEVs are edging ever closer to mainstream adoption in underground mines. (Photo: MacLean Engineering/ Mining Industrial Photographer)

E&MJ reviews some key battery-electric vehicle developments from 2020 and looks at what the future holds

By Carly Leonida, European Editor

Last year was undoubtably the year of the battery electric vehicle (BEV) in mining. From new product launches and mine deployments to dedicated events, there was no shortage of announcements, and that trend looks set to continue in 2021 as technology adoption increases.

From the mining company perspective, many conversations are currently centered around site suitability, technology selection and building a business for BEVs in different environments.

GMG Promotes Discussion

A good example of this was at the GMG’s Electric Mine forum held virtually in September, where participants gathered to discuss the merits and challenges associated with BEVs in greenfield, brownfield and expansion projects. GMG said the outcomes from the meeting would be fed back into the third edition of the BEV guideline, which is currently in development.

The event also included an interesting Q&A session (the notes from which are available to read online) with some of the panelists, including Ron Miller, director for asset management, energy, at Newmont; Steve Holmik, mobile equipment specialist at Glencore’s Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations (Sudbury INO); and Peter Wan, technology and innovation lead at Teck Resources.

During the discussion, Miller raised the question of potential costs associated with BEV infrastructure and power grid infrastructure given the increased demand for electrical energy. Could these be a barrier to adoption at certain operations?

“Transitioning to BEVs could significantly increase electrical demand at a mine site, so there could be significant upgrades required to both generating and transmission assets,” Wan replied. “Another big consideration will be how to smooth demand from charging infrastructure. Energy storage is likely to a critical investment.”

Indeed, energy storage technology could be deployed at certain mines to accept energy from the grid in periods of low demand, and to relieve demand on the grid during times of peak demand caused by BEVs.

Miller pointed out that some underground mines could actually see a net zero effect of mine electrification as the incremental energy demand from switching to BEVs could be offset by savings in ventilation and cooling.

The panel also discussed total cost of ownership, comparing BEVs with their diesel counterparts.

“Electric motors require virtually zero maintenance and are traditionally far more reliable than diesel engines,” Holmik said. “Even with some traditional drive train components, due to the reduced vibrations and shock loadings, modelling and forecasts that I’ve seen have shown they will last longer. Hydraulically driven pumps can be utilized as required and, in some cases, turned off while not in use so the wear on these components is reduced as well.”

Wan weighed in: “BEVs have substantially fewer moving parts than ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles, so there will be a reduction in maintenance costs in that area.”

Holmik added that, at this point in time, one of the biggest unknowns relates to battery replacement cycles given that many factors will impact battery life (e.g., depth of discharge, charge rate, operating temperatures, etc.)

“The useful life of a battery pack will be contingent upon the number of charge/recharges required to do the necessary work at the mine. This, in turn, is contingent upon the length of haul, height of haul to destination, and the payload moved by the truck,” Miller said. “Frequent charge cycles will take a toll on the battery with eventual degradation so that the work energy per recharge declines toward replacement.”

All three agreed, however, that the industry definition of TCO needs to consider more than just the CAPEX and OPEX life cycle cost of BEV equipment, with the scope widened to include savings from other areas; for example, in mine design as well.

The panel was also questioned about the business case for BEVs at remote operations where power is provided by diesel gensets.

Wan explained that BEVs will still deliver a reduction in carbon emissions due to the increased efficiency of electric motors and, for underground operations, OPEX through ventilation costs reductions.

However, Miller stated: “I don’t see a lot of value for BEVs at a mine site that is powered by diesel gensets,” he said. “The inefficiencies of generation of power from diesel (different fuel efficiencies and different load factors on engine generators) will then be compounded by inefficiencies in converting that energy generated in AC to battery energy in DC. BEVs should only be employed where there is an alternative energy source other than diesel gensets.”

Progress at Onaping

In early December, Glencore published its 2020 Climate Report that set out the miner’s plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

In it, the company gave an update on the development of its Onaping Depth nickel project, part of the Sudbury INO, which will soon welcome a BEV fleet. Ambient rock temperatures at the mine can reach 40°C, so Glencore has had to think outside of the box to create a safe working environment.

“Onaping Depth… has been designed to utilize state-of-the-art battery-electric mobile mining equipment, maximized real-time remote operation, monitoring and management utilizing advanced Wi-Fi systems,” the company said in the report. “The benefits include the elimination of diesel emissions and the reduction of noise pollution. The design includes the use of innovative ventilation technology, with cooling systems designed to be energy efficient.

“We expect that BEVs could play an increasingly important role in underground operations and that going forward new mines will look to utilize this technology. The benefits of battery-electric power in an underground mining operation are numerous. There are a number of industry initiatives promoting the development and uptake given the environmental benefits and the collective goal to reduce employee exposure to airborne diesel particulates.

“There will also be greater energy efficiency in operating a fleet of electric mobile equipment as the use of BEVs enable savings in ventilation and cooling costs which can be a significant portion of a mine’s cost structure.”

Glencore said that Sudbury INO continues to work with a few major OEMs to advance battery technology for Onaping Depth. The project will test a number of models before settling on the technology that will be most practical and cost effective.

Vale’s Green Energy Vehicle Program

Glencore has also been working with its Sudbury neighbor, Vale, on some BEV guidance and specifications.

At the High-Performance Mining Conference in November co-hosted virtually by German mining association, the VDMA, and RWTH Aachen University’s Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies, Sean Kautzman of SRK and Natalie Kari, principal engineer for Vale Canada’s Strategic Electric Vehicle Implementation, provided the keynote for the session entitled The Green Mine.

Kautzman opened the presentation by discussing some of the challenges that mining companies face when transitioning operations from diesel to electric equipment and the ways in which they can be managed.

Kari then explained how Vale has addressed some of these challenges through its Green Energy Vehicle program; a comprehensive and holistic initiative designed to ensure swift and successful integration of BEVs into the company’s operations.

The program is just one way in which Vale aims to reduce its fossil fuel consumption and move toward net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

“We called it the Green Energy Program because not only does it include battery-electric equipment, but also trolley-electric equipment, tethered electric equipment, trolley-battery combinations, fuel cell equipment and hybrid equipment,” Kari explained. “The portfolio is all inclusive.”

To ensure the program was a success, Vale needed to ensure that business support, a proper program structure and KPIs were all in place.

“We did lots of work on leadership endorsement and buy in on-site at all levels so we could really focus our resources on the initiatives at hand,” she said. “We also needed internal governance to maintain the program vision and align with the business drivers. If we found any gaps in those we highlighted and addressed them to mitigate risks.”

KPIs included those around health and safety, air quality, fossil fuel elimination, financial resources, operational feedback and fleet information. While business drivers included environmental stewardship, worker health, financial improvements and a sense of doing what is right.

“There were lots of considerations,” Kari said. “This was a really complex project and there were a lot of processes that needed to happen in parallel in order to make the project happen in a six-month timeframe as opposed to two to three years.”

Collaboration was key both internally and externally, and Kari explained how Vale’s mobile fleet management team worked on a BEV specification with their counterparts at Glencore in order to develop a document that was industry representative and could be fed back to OEMs.

The teams are also working on a project coordinated by Natural Resources Canada called the 100% Electric Mine Collaboration. The aim is to benchmark diesel equipment performance against that of BEVs. The initiative was set to conclude at the end of December and Kari said she expects some information around TCO to be available by mid-2021. The project is also feeding into the GMG’s updated BEV guideline mentioned earlier.

In addition, Vale is working with local colleges to devise BEV upskill training courses and ran a BEV workshop for its leadership team in October to ensure inclusivity.

During the presentation, the question was also raised as to whether Vale was considering battery-electric technology for its surface mining operations.

Kari explained that both the Creighton and Coleman mines have Kiruna trolley trucks already, adding that Vale has procured and is testing a 40-t BEV haul truck which is set to make its debut at Creighton in Q1 2021.

“We will have a battery-electric truck and we’re also working with the OEM to develop a battery-electric truck with trolley assist as well,” she said. “We’re looking forward to trialing that. At Coleman, we also have a BEV that is not trolley assisted; it’s utilized on a specific run that can manage the timeframe the battery is available for.”

Nouveau Monde Starts Procurement for Matawinie

Following Kari and Kautzman’s presentation was one from Nouveau Monde Graphite President and CEO Eric Desaulniers. The company, which started as a grassroots exploration venture in 2021, has plans to develop the world’s first all-electric open-pit mine, which will be carbon neutral in the first five years of production. Construction on Matawinie will start this year and the mine is expected to be operational in 2022.

Nouveau Monde operates two production facilities in Bécancour, Québec, and supplies high-purity battery anode material and advanced materials to battery producers and automotive manufacturers. Desaulniers said the company’s vertically integrated business model and geographical location were key factors in the decision to implement BEVs at Matawinie.

“We have a lot of incentives [to use this technology], more than most mining companies,” he told the audience.

Matawinie will be a relatively small surface mine, although it has a large, near-surface resource of 120.3 million mt measured and indicated. The size and topography of the mine mean that 45- to 65-mt capacity haul trucks will be used, and the mine will be operated 16 hours per day, five days a week, which suits a BEV fleet well because the batteries can be placed on a long, slow charge every night to help preserve their life.

The mine will phase in a fleet of 60 BEVs over the first five years of its life as it transitions from mining and dumping waste to backfilling the pit, which reduces the number of uphill journeys the fleetwill have to make.

Desaulniers said he visited e-Mining’s Swiss test site in 2017 and drove the first eDumper battery-electric haul truck, which is based on a 65-mt Komatsu HD 605-7. Having seen that the technology was feasible, the Nouveau Monde team embarked on a full feasibility study for Matawinie in 2018 based on 100% diesel operation during the first five years then a further 21 years of all-electric operation.

The company began the procurement process for its fleet and charging infrastructure through an international call for pre-qualification in late November 2020, which detailed the desired scope and specs of the future fleet — interested parties can find the list on the Nouveau Monde website.

Discussions with manufacturers have already enabled the team to identify existing machinery in development and/or available, notably for the ancillary fleet where purchasing agreements are now being finalized.

Desaulniers explained that, while the project will require more CAPEX upfront to implement BEV technology, in the long term, an electric fleet will be cheaper to run than a diesel one thanks to Québec’s ready source of cheap hydroelectric power. The site will have a dedicated 120-kV power line.

Fast charging underground. (Photo: Normet)

Hydrogen as Well?

Nouveau Monde has done a lot of work analyzing different technologies for both up and downhill haulage applications, and hydrogen fuel cells are another promising technology for the 60-mt truck class, although less well advanced than lithium-ion batteries.

Canadian gas company, Air Liquide, is currently building a 20-MW membrane electrolyzer in Bécancour, which could potentially provide a low-cost, green source of hydrogen close to the mine site, so Nouveau Monde is keeping a close eye on the technology as it develops.

“We might end up using a hybrid solution with fuel cells for the excavators and li-ion batteries for the trucks, but a lot could change in the next few years,” said Desaulniers.

Compared to a base case made on diesel equipment, Desaulniers said Nouveau Monde expects a battery-electric fleet to reduce GHG emissions from Matawinie’s haulage fleet by 48% once the mine has made the transition. This equates to saving around 12,000 mt/y of GHGs.

“If we total up emissions from all extractive processes in Canada, including oil sands, they equate to around 80 million mt/y of GHGs,” Desaulniers said. “We’re hoping to enable transformation in the market. If we can show others that it’s possible [to go all-electric] and convince them to copy us and work with us, we can increase demand for the OEMs, drive down costs and save a lot of GHG emissions.”

Not content with just purchasing BEV solutions, the Nouveau Monde team is also working to develop its own haul truck. The company is part of a project, partially funded by the Canadian and Québec governments, that aims to develop a new propulsion system with rapid recharging capabilities for open-pit mining. The consortium is converting a Western Star XD 6900 truck and plans to test the prototype at Nouveau Monde’s test ground in spring 2022.

Boliden’s BEV Plans

In an October 2020 interview with E&MJ, Jonas Ranggård, manager for Boliden’s Mine Energy Program, told E&MJ the company is working with Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, on battery technology to complement the trolley assist technology used for haulage at its Aitik and Kevitsa mines.

The idea is to take out the diesel engine and fill the space with a really large battery pack. The battery pack will be used to power the trucks up ramp until they reach the trolley line. The truck will then connect to the trolley line, continue up ramp to the crusher, dump and return into the pit. While traveling down ramp, the regenerative energy from braking will recharge the battery pack.

Ranggård hopes to see battery-electric haul trucks in operation at Boliden’s open-pit mines within the next five years.