At the Zwartkop Chrome Mine, near Thabazimbi, South Africa, mining company Cronimet Chrome SA has established a technological innovation – not below the ground, but above it. To help power the mine, Cronimet installed a hybrid solar-diesel system that includes 4,158 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, producing 1.8 GWh of electricity – about 60% of the mine’s power. According to a report released by Carbon War Room in March, the Cronimet system will not only reduce fuel costs and carbon emissions for the mine, but also has the potential to “power local communities and improve the local economy.”
Like natural gas and wind power, solar PV and mining are becoming odd bedfellows – seemingly incongruent players in the energy landscape that are increasingly being paired to create win-win situations for each party. Solar PV is increasingly being utilized to reduce the costs and lower the environmental damage of extracting coal and other minerals. Chile, South Africa, and Australia are three of the leading countries where solar PV is being installed on mining operations, due to the remote location of the mining sites, unreliable (or nonexistent) electricity from the grid in the mining area, and the heavy use of diesel gensets in every aspect of mining operations. Navigant Research’s Renewable Energy in the Mining Industry report forecasts that renewable technologies will supply between 5% and 8% of the world’s mining industry power consumption by 2022.
The world’s largest solar PV company, U.S.-based First Solar, is now aggressively targeting diesel replacement solutions for African mines. The company acquired Solar Chile, a Chilean project development company with a pipeline of 1.5 GW of solar PV, in 2013. Much of this pipeline is in the Atacama Desert region, which boasts some of the highest solar irradiance in the world. Combining high solar irradiance and high cost of electricity is a recipe for solar company success. First Solar says its levelized cost of electricity is as low as 7 cents per kWh in such places – making it competitive with grid prices without subsidies.
In Australia, First Solar says it expects to develop as much as 200 MW of capacity for the mining industry over the next 3 years. First Solar’s Sydney-based vice president of business development for Asia Pacific, Jack Curtis, tells Bloomberg News that mines are not as profitable as they used to be, meaning cost control is a bigger concern, and solar PV can be a hedge against volatile fuel costs.
Similar to wind, the solar PV market of today has evolved into a sophisticated global industry and has distanced itself in some ways from the us versus them approach of renewables and fossil fuels. There can be synergies, albeit uncomfortable ones.