Miners investigating off grid solar

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The first Resources and Renewable Energy Technology Forum was held earlier this month in Perth, Western Australia, bringing together 50 representatives from Australia’s mining industry, renewable energy companies and agencies and mining engineers from sites where renewable energy had been integrated elsewhere.

Companies sharing their experiences integrating renewable energy into mining operations included Rio Tinto in Canada, Abengoa in Chile and inverter manufacturer SMA, drawing on its experience in South Africa.

The PV and CSP industries have been eyeing market opportunities presented by supplying miners in off or micro-grid applications in Australia with solar solutions for some time. However, the Australian mining industry, despite its heavy reliance on piped natural gas and trucked diesel, has to date been relatively slow to invest in renewables.

South Africa and Chile’s mining industries have appeared more open to renewable solutions, with megawatt projects currently under construction and large pipelines reported.

Australia’s mining industry may finally be making moves towards renewables, as evidenced by strong interest in the recent technology forum. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) is leading the way in supporting such development. ARENA hosted the recent event in the Western Australian capital city of Perth in partnership with the Chamber of Minerals and Energy to promote renewables for mining installations.

ARENA’s support scheme, the Regional Australia’s Renewables – Industry Program (I-RAR), assists the industry with such mining applications. The program, which is accepting proposals until the end of the year, offers support for such projects in diverse ways.

"We’re actually looking at a variety of support mechanisms, everything from upfront capital grants to revenue based support to what I would call contingent or risk-sharing grants on the backend," ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht told pv magazine.

While the current impediments to renewable projects to supply the mining industry are many, Frischknecht said they are not insurmountable. "It is a conservative industry that is focused on its core business and it tends to have a very short time horizon, very high hurdle rates and fairly scarce capital, and so all of those make the environment difficult for renewables," said Frischnecht.

Frischknecht told pv magazine that ARENA had already received a number of applications for funding and support under the regional renewables program, including mineral and natural gas extraction ventures. He said that the body has a project pipeline worth "several billion dollars" that it is currently evaluating. "In terms of technologies we’re currently looking at projects that could include solar thermal or PV, or wind," said Frischknecht.

Last week ARENA had its funding cut by the freshly-elected federal government from AUD 3 billion to AUD2.5 billion through to 2022. Frischknecht said he was not surprised by the cuts: "It’s no secret that the government is looking for savings."

The Chamber of Minerals and Energy, ARENA and Austrade are currently working on a publication to share some of the challenges to realizing mining industry renewable projects featuring case studies from existing installations.