This is one of the reasons why Epiroc, a leading manufacturer of mining and infrastructure equipment, has committed to having a full electric offering for underground mining by as soon as 2025, as well as electric alternatives to all other models in its extensive range by 2030.
This means for any mining operation there will be a zero-emission alternative to all diesel-powered equipment, the Swedish company's senior zero emission manager Erik Svedlund said.
For Epiroc, setting these targets - which are part of the company's wider ambition to halve its own CO2 emissions across operations, transport, suppliers and products - is not without challenges, but very much the ‘obvious' thing to do.
"The world is undergoing huge changes due to the green agenda [which is] shaping perceptions, investment decisions and stakeholder sentiment towards mining. Mining companies need to act and it's clear to everyone the sustainable mine of the future will be electric," Svedlund says.
"From an OEM's perspective, it's our responsibility to make sure we can offer machines that can be powered by renewable energy, to accelerate the transition and help companies achieve their goals."
Meeting the Net Zero Challenge
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world will require an estimated six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today if it is to achieve net zero emissions globally by 2050 .
This means, mining production must increase along with demand, but, at the same time, its environmental footprint and negative social impacts must be mitigated in line with global climate change ambitions. And given that ESG reporting is set to become mandatory in many countries, hiding from this huge task is no longer a viable option.
"This is very challenging. It means slightly better machine fuel efficiency or improved hydraulic pumps are not enough: the problem needs to be attacked in more ways," Svedlund says.
Experts agree electrification is the technology that best aligns with these global efforts. Swapping diesel-powered machinery for electric-powered removes tailpipe emissions which directly improves the health and safety of underground mining. It also reduces costs associated with ventilation, which increase with the depth of the mine.
What's more, according to Epiroc, electric machines use 70% less energy, require 25-30% less preventative maintenance spend, increase productivity by 10% and produce less noise and heat.
This is why the company, which already offers four fully electric models, is using a large chunk of the 3% of revenue it puts into research and development to deliver the electric mining machines of the future.
This work involves proving the technology and maturing its supply chain, including ensuring access to components, electric motors and parcel drive lines, as well as facilitating knowledge-sharing across the industry. In this regard, to meet the company's own ambitious target of reducing its emissions to half of 2019 levels, , Epiroc is forging partnerships with companies such as battery manufacturer Northvolt. The Swedish firm has amission to deliver batteries with an 80% lower carbon footprint than those made using coal energy.
Epiroc has also been exploring alternative technologies such as fuel cells and hybrids. Pertaining to this, Svedlund said he believes the industry should expect electric hybrids powered by battery and cable or battery-powered machines with dynamic charging, such as trucks used on short routes, which he noted is an emerging trend, particularly for open pit mining.
But Svedlund is unequivocal when he adds that the battery technology, which has been developed over 10 years already, is mature. What it needs now is widespread adoption, which is "rapidly coming", he says.
Renewable Energy Ready
However, to achieve the lowest carbon footprint the industry needs renewable energy.
"As an OEM, we can make a zero-emission machine with fossil fuel-free steel and the world's greenest battery, but if a customer powers it from a very dirty source, the business case and justification for it might only work out from a cost and health and safety standpoint. To get the full benefit it should be powered by renewable energy," explains Svedlund.
Powering an electric machine with coal can increase emissions by around 1.1 times compared to a diesel equivalent. Conversely, according to consultants McKinsey & Company, a fully electrified mine with renewablepower sources could achieve a 60-80% lower carbon footprint, helping it gain easier access to finance at lower premiums and avoid things such as carbon taxes.
"Electric machines and renewable energy need to go hand in hand: that's the parallel revolution we need to see in the next decade," Svedlund adds.
Change is already underway. Remote minesites with no grid access are starting to shun diesel generators in favour of harnessing local natural resources such as wind and solar power because, often, it's the cheapest and more convenient option.
"If you're powering your mine from a diesel generator the cost of electricity is roughly 50 cents per kilowatt hour. Renewable energy is below 10c; it's just a natural step," Svedlund says. "For a power-intensive industry, this is not only smart and cost-efficient, but also the right thing to do."
Svedlund provides a case in point. The Black Rock manganese mining complex in South Africa, which is owned by Assmang , recently invested in a fleet of electric machines from Epiroc. After running the machines for more than seven months, the company reported a 10% production increase compared to using diesel equivalents. In particular, the subsequent heat reduction in the minesite enabled them to continue drilling for longer, speeding up production.
But most notably, to counter South Africa's famously unreliable coal-powered grid, the company is investing in a 40MW on-site solar array.
"This means, next year, when the array is operational, the minesite will have completely eliminated these emission sources," Svedlund says.
Furthermore, excess power produced by the solar array can be sold to the grid.
"This is the profitable thing to do, securing access to green, renewable energy will be super fundamental for the future commercial viability of mines," Svedlund adds.
Such an achievement can also be revolutionary for ESG reporting outcomes, dramatically lowering both scope one emissions (those that directly result from operations) and scope two (those caused by energy being purchased and produced), which is likely to result in access to cheaper finance and better mine acceptability from local communities and regulators.
Forging a Fossil Fuel-Free Future
Yet, building safe, cost-effective and efficient battery-powered technology to replace machines that have been evolving over the last 100 years is not an easy task, Svedlund cautioned.
Miners are understandably cautious about adopting new technology, especially at billion-dollar projects. Doing so requires careful planning, management and investment.
But while Svedlund acknowledges the challenges are often "enormous", he also says attitudes are changing, because the benefits are equally as large.
"Underground mining is leading the technology's adoption, but we now see surface mines and bigger pits requiring bigger machinery [and] also wanting to have a clear roadmap towards electrification," he said.
And the prevalence and emphasis on ESG within the industry - and indeed the world - is a key driver of adoption.
"When we measure the impact, it is clear we cannot keep relying on fossil fuels to power our industry. Investors are backing out of high-carbon investments in oil, coal and gas. It's critical the mining industry positions itself as part of the green agenda by supporting the energy transition, by adopting zero-emission machines and [by] converting to renewable energy," Svedlund concludes.
"Electrification can change the face of mining, it can help it win the social licence to operate, as well as attract the best employees. The industry can move away from being seen as part of the problem to being part of the solution, which it is. We can't achieve the energy transition without it."