Miners embrace solar power – as a cost saving measure

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Mining companies are now embracing solar PV and solar thermal technologies to reduce their dependence of diesel and other fossil fuels – and to keep a lid on soaring energy costs. The first solar thermal plant for a mining operation has been opened, and BHP has tested the waters by commissioning a 1MW project for its high-altitude Chilean copper project.

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The New Year is barely more than two weeks old, and already solar is grabbing headlines: China has confirmed it expects to install 10GW of solar in 2013, a development that would take its total installed capacity close to 50GW by 2015, and well beyond the  most optimistic forecasts of 100GW by 2020 if the growth rate continues to expand.

Elsewhere, the Middle East expects to intall 3GW of solar by 2015, the state of New York has announced a $1.5 billion extension to its solar program, France doubled its solar targets to 1GW, India is about to tender 1GW of projects, Warren Buffett has invested another $2.5 billion in solar projects, Italy and Spain have set new solar generation records, and Germany increased its solar production by 45 per cent after adding another 7.3GW of capacity.

But perhaps the most important news from an Australian perspective has been the move by mining companies to adopt solar technologies to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, particularly diesel, and to keep a lid on their soaring energy costs.

The development of off-grid solar projects, particularly with remote and mining communities, is expected to be a central theme of the newly established Australian Renewable Energy Agency, as its chairman Greg Bourne made clear in an interview with RenewEconomy last year.

Bourne said that there was a “huge opportunity” in the replacement of expensive diesel, both in remote and off-grid areas, and the fringe-of-grid areas. “If you can prove the technology and the control systems for forecasting and intermittency, you have a lot more confidence in trying it nearer to  a large grid and beginning to sweep away the barriers of  ‘oh, we can’t do this, everything will fail,” he said.

It could be the strategy that gives life to the solar thermal technologies that have so far struggled to compete with solar PV projects on the basis of cost of grid-connected projects. Certainly, that was the expectation of many experts whose views we sought late last year, and several solar developers have told RenewEconomy that they are excited about the prospects of finally landing a solar project with an Australian mining group.

But it seems that Australia has already been beaten to the punch by miners in Chile – another country with strong solar resources, huge mines that cannot be adequately serviced by the weak local grid, and which are being hit by soaring fossil fuel costs, particularly diesel.

At the start of this year, a 10MW solar thermal plant built by Spanish group Abengoa was commissioned for a mining operation in Chile. Energy from the 1,280 parabolic trough collector modules is expected to cut the use of diesel – in the solution heating process used for extracting copper at the Minera El Tesoro mine – by 55 per cent.

The solar technology has been designed specifically for industrial thermal processes, and Abengoa says there is huge potential for this technology in the mining industry. Its various solar technologies – on display at the world’s largest demonstration centre in Spain – include PV, parabolic trough and solar towers, can be used for other industrial applications, desalination, or pure electricity generation.

In Chile, both solar PV and solar thermal technologies are  being deployed to supply power for irrigation systems for citrus and avocado farms, as well as for mines, but it is also expected to be the site of some of the world’s first large-scale solar projects that are built entirely without subsidy.

That’s the view of First Solar, the thin-film solar developer and module maker that is the world’s largest solar PV manufacturer by market capitalization. In an interview late last year with RenewEconomy, First Solar James Hughes highlighted Chile as one of the most prospective solar markets in the world because of its fantastic solar irradiation – deemed to be among the highest in the world – and the company has since followed that up by buying a a 1.5GW pipeline of PV power projects in northern Chile, including the Atacama Desert area where the Abengoa plant is located.

The purchase of Solar Chile is part of First Solar’s strategy to develop a pipeline in the countries where solar plants can be built without subsidies. Chile, with its high energy costs, reliance on fossil fuels and frequent energy shortages, fits that bill.

Alvaro Fischer, president of Fundación Chile, an early investor in Solar Chile, said the purchase was a milestone of “enormous” significance to the country. “It highlights the tremendous potential that solar PV energy has to change the demography and the economy of northern Chile, opening it up to new opportunities beyond mining and fishing, into water desalinization, hydrogen production or large green data centers.”

According to industry analyst GTM Research, the first of Solar Chile’s projects, a 30MW facility at La Tirana, will be on line later this year. Its capital costs, according to documents field with Chilean authorities, are around $2.50/watt. That compares to around $3/watt for the 157MW project to be built by AGL Energy, with First Solar technology, under the Solar Flagships-funded project at Broken Hill and Nyngan in western NSW.

Interestingly, Fundacion Chile was a public-private alliance between the Chilean government and some mining companies.

One of those companies is BHP Billiton, which has commissioned a 1MW solar plant in the Atacama Desert to supply energy to the world’s highest altitude copper mine, at 3,200m above sea level.

Juwi, the German contractor, says the solar power plant will have to with-stand earth quakes as well as extreme weather patterns such as sand storms and gusts.  But it signals a huge opportunity for renewables.

“Chile has excellent conditions for solar energy. We not only have high levels of solar radiation but also outstanding wind conditions,” says Diego Lobo-Guerrero Rodríguez, the company’s project coordinator for Latin America. “Chile also has excellent conditions for wind energy, is a politically stable country and is extremely open to renewable energies.”

The fact that BHP has chosen Chile as the location for its first MW-scale solar project is instructive., and it will be interesting to see if there is any follow-through on its mining projects in Australia and elsewhere.  The company revealed that it was alert to the potential of solar and other renewable technologies when it put together its draft planning for the massive Olympic Dam project, effectively hedging its bets so it could see which technologies – solar PV, solar thermal, or geothermal – could progress down the cost curve and better the cost of its next-best option, a massive gas-fired plant.  However, the entire Olympic Dam project is now on hold.

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3 Comments
  1. Nick Kachel 6 years ago

    Hi Giles

    CSIRO and partners have recently kicked off a project that is similar to what you have described in your article. The project, ‘Development of Combined Cycle Using Solar Reformed Gas’ will be based in Western Australia.

    Combined cycle power plants use solar thermal energy to upgrade natural gas into a synthesised gas (or ‘syngas’) with a higher chemical energy content. This syngas is then burned in the ‘topping cycle’ of the combined power system to generate electricity.

    For more information on this project, read the factsheet: http://australiansolarinstitute.com.au/SiteFiles/australiansolarinstitutecomau/CSIRO_-_Deployment_of_combined_cycle_using_solar_reformed_gas_(PDF_372KB).pdf

    You can also subscribe to our CSIRO Solar Blog – http://csirosolarblog.com/ – which will have more information published on this project in the near future.

    Cheers, Nick Kachel, CSIRO

  2. Satyajit Datar 6 years ago

    Giles,
    Always appreciate and enjoy reading your daily updates.
    I have a suggestion – when you get a chance it would be worth you or someone else ‘in the know’ to get onto Wikipedia and update many of the entries, with the latest knowledge and especially stats on renewables usage around the world. Some of the entries are a few years old
    Satyajit

  3. steve the sparky 6 years ago

    However, the entire Olympic Dam project is now on hold.

    WRONG!

    There is a hole, not just a hole, a seriously big hole being dug AS I WRITE THIS at Olympic Dam.

    On hold… is a play on words, they are digging removing overburden and for when the expansion is green-lighted, they expect to be at the ore body.

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