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Rio Tinto to deploy 6.7MW solar PV + storage at off-grid mine

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A ground-breaking, $23.4 million project to cut out daytime diesel consumption at Rio Tinto bauxite mine at Weipa could unlock billions of dollars of similar investments in the mining industry – which is weighed down by soaring energy costs.

Mining giant Rio Tinto is to host a $23.4 million solar PV plus storage facility at its Weipa bauxite mine, that is the first of its type and scale in the world and could unleash billions of dollars of similar investment.

weipa 3Rio Tinto Alcan – with the help of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency – is to install a 1.7MW solar PV array at its Weipa bauxite mine later this year, and then add a further 5MW of solar PV and battery storage.

The Weipa mine (pictured) is located on the Cape York Peninsula at the very northern tip of eastern Australia, and relies on expensive diesel that has to be shipped in.

The first phase of the solar project – to be built with First Solar thin-film modules and constructed by Australian solar firm Ingenero – is expected to reduce daytime diesel demand from the mine’s 26MW diesel generator by up to 20 per cent.

However, the addition of more solar and storage to balance out intermittency could reduce daytime diesel consumption altogether at certain times.

The Weipa project was the first of around 70 submissions  – worth several billion dollars of investment – from mining operators in Australia for funding for such ground breaking projects under ARENA’s $400 million remote energy program.

The ending of the commodities boom has made miners more focused on energy costs. Rio Tinto recently announced the closure of the Groote Eylandt mine in Northern Territory because it was being crushed by fuel costs. Solar and other technologies are now emerging as viable alternatives, even with the diesel excise exemption enjoyed by the mining industry.

ARENA, which has been marked for closure by Tony Abbott’s ultra conservative government in Australia, is committing $10.3 million over the two phases of the project.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknect said it is critical as part of a “show and tell” exercise that will help make miners understand the technology, accept its reliability, and identify where further cost cuts are made. This will lead to reduced costs in future projects, and ultimately remove the need for any government support.

“We need a few of these projects to show how cost-effective they can be,” Frischknecht told RenewEconomy.

“Transporting fuel long distances for generators is dangerous and subject to variable weather conditions – it is a costly, unpredictable arrangement that doesn’t make good economic sense.

“However, miners need to be confident about the integration of such technology, EPC contractors need to learn about the difficulties of delivering modules in such remote locations, and (sub contractors) don’t know yet what they don’t know.

“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg … energy security is a big deal for miners. ARENA sees mining as a huge potential off-grid user of renewable energy in Australia and congratulates Rio Tinto Alcan for paving the way for other mining operations to adopt renewable energy and offset diesel use through this landmark demonstration project.”

Whether ARENA gets to spend more on its remote mining energy program may depend on support in the Senate, which could reject the repeal bill being prepared by the Abbott government (which had made a pre-election promise to retain ARENA).

Frischknect said it was unclear how many such projects would need to be funded in such a way to unleash further unsubsidized investment from the mining community.  “There has been a lot of discussion about that, it could be that we need to sign on all the majors to enable the key internal decision-making.”

Jack Curtis, the head of business development for First Solar in Australia, says there has been a tipping point in the mining community in the last six months, where the big operators have realized that solar can provide an economic alternative to soaring diesel and gas prices.

“We think that this will show that solar can go mainstream,” Curtis said. He expected other large companies to follow, not just in Australia, but in other solar rich mining regions. “Rio Tinto wouldn’t be doing this if it was a one-off effort,” he said.

First Solar modules were used to construct Australia’s first utility-scale solar farm in Australia, the 10MW Greenough River project near Geraldton, and the largest solar farms under construction, the combined 153MW facilities at Broken Hill and Nyngan in NSW.

Miners in Chile have begun to install solar PV projects, and even Australia’s Fortescue Metals recently tendered for a 3MW solar PV project to help power its Christmas Creek mining camp at its large Cloudbreak iron ore mine in the Pilbara. BHP Billion considered a range of renewable technology options, including solar and geothermal, in planning for its now deferred expansion of the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia.

Other solar technologies, such as solar thermal with storage being developed by Solar Reserve and Australia’s Vast Solar, also see off-grid mining applications.

Gareth Manderson, the general manager of operations at Rio Tinto Alcan’s Weipa mine, said the hybrid diesel/PV solution will introduce to the site “a reliable source of electricity, with low maintenance requirements.”

The first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed later this year, with phase two set for 2017. Rio Tinto Alcan will buy the electricity under a 15-year power purchase agreement.

A total of 18,000 modules will be mounted on steel and aluminium structures in the first phase, generating  2,620MWh of electricity each year for use in the mine and the processing plant. The specifications of the storage component have yet to be worked out.

 

 

   

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  • Sean

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop the subsidy of diesel to the mining industries to stop promoting fossil fuels over solar? Think of the benefits to electric vehicles if those giant dump trucks were electric.

    • juxx0r

      Go work out how much energy it takes to lift a 600t truck 300m vertically and then work out how you’re going to get that energy to the truck, trip after trip.

      Then do it for the mines that are 1km deep.

      Oh yeah, many of those dump trucks are electric, powered by the diesel genset in the front.

      It’s really nice to see a mining company going solar in Australia. Given that most mines are running electricity costs at 20-30c/kWh then solar is an option in a lot of mines. Long payback times are the problem for a capital constrained business, particularly when short mine lives are common.

      • Catprog

        489KWh

        ~1MWh with 50% efficiency.

        Much better to use electric trains, then you can have power lines for power.

        • juxx0r

          Now do 1MWh in 20 minutes.

      • mike flanagan

        Major gravel and sand quarries use electric mobile conveyer systems very efficiently these days, to deliver material to processing heads from the face..

        • Jan Veselý

          Yes, it is normal for about last 100 yaers.

  • Rob

    Rio Tinto seem to have decided that renewable energy ( subsidised at the moment ) is more cost effective than fossil fuel ( also subsidised ), at their remote mines. Presumably then, many others in the mining industry may also come to the same conclusion. If this means that renewable energy can help our miners become more efficient and globally competitive thats a good thing isn’t it? This has apparently been made possible by the the existence and assistance of ARENA, an agency that the Abbott government is about to abolish! Despite promising not to before the election! So in one blow the Abbott government will disadvantage and constrain two industries that could combine to make each other stronger and more profitable into the future. And its doing so by disappearing an agency that is investing in Australian innovation, business and employment in the renewable energy sector which has the potential to become a trillion dollar global industry. The Abbott governments decision to abolish ARENA seems totally irrational and utterly economically irresponsible. How depressing!

    • michael

      2,620MWh is equivalent to 0.3MW of installed baseload (diesel runnign 24/7), so go to 5MW full project and you get 1MW equivalent installed. $23.4M for 1MW of power installed isn’t very competitive.
      With ARENA funding it is competitive which is great, but let’s not pretend it stacks up independently, we’re a few years off that. Batteries are where the real savings are going to kick in, hopefully they fall in cost quickly to allow full potential of solar to be realised.

      • You’re kidding me, aren’t you? Diesel costs a minimum $300/MWh, and carries massive fuel cost and supply risk with it. Utility scale solar is probably less than half that, add a bit more for cost of installation and maintenance in remote area. As this article states clearly, the costs of these projects will fall significantly when everyone can figure out optimum ways on transporting, installing and other issues. That’s why ARENA support is helpful.

        • michael

          using 10 years and no extra cost past capex on the above project (zero fuel cost for solar), it’s $327/MWh, so without the subsidy it’s just in the ball park. Initial stage was quotes as costing $5-6M in another paper (Arena funding $3.5M).
          $6M/(2620MWh/yr*10yrs)=$327/Mwh
          with mining industry generally not accepting of 10year paybacks (so even that’s generous. At 4 year pay back it’s way off), where have I gone wrong?

          • Well, it’s a 15 year PPA for a start, not 10. Modules will probably last lot longer than that.

          • michael

            True, over 15 years it is $150/MWh. I was looking at it from an owner perspective, I wonder if private capital would go for the 15yr period to enable positive assessment. So you are 100% correct that is the role of arena because they don’t necessarily need that commercial return

          • I doubt its as low as $150/MWh. But in a first-off project, the capital costs are always going to be way over the top, especially when government providing a top up!!! The big reduction in solar in last few years has not just been modules, but “soft costs” – financing, installation, maintenance, etc etc. These are the things that will fall quickly after first few projects.

  • sunoba

    According to my standard methodology, the LCOE for Stage 1 of this PV project is AUD 304 per MWh. The Capacity Factor is 0.176. I’m a huge fan of solar and I think that solar power for remote mine-sites should be regarded as low-hanging fruit, but I’m underwhelmed by the LCOE figure. Details of my estimate at http://www.sunoba.blogspot.com.

    • Ronald Brakels

      A capacity factor of 17.6% seems odd for a Darwin style climate. I’d expect better than that despite the year round high temperatures. But maybe the panels are configured with panels facind east and west, dropping the capacity factor but giving smoother output through the day. Or perhaps it’s just the result of a conservative estimate of how well the system will perform. But it would be nice if large scale installations could be done in Australia for less than twice what it costs to get it installed on one’s roof.

  • Arnold van den Hurk

    Copper and Iron mining are using solar PV at Chile. Chrome at South Africa and others. Alumina and Aluminium smelters use geothermal at Island and now we have this good example for bauxite mining. Solar PV is becoming a mainstream in mining. I’ll try to collect all this examples in my blog: http://www.miningrenewables.com

  • nakedChimp

    Would be nice to have some info on the type and amount of storage they want to install with the 1.7MW PV, no?

    • Yep, but as the story mentions, they haven’t specced that out yet. Bound to be a few opportunities emerge in next year or two. But it seems it will be about smoothing, rather than shifting power into evening.