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Rio Tinto switches on largest solar plant at Australian mine

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Mining giant Rio Tinto has switched on a 1.7MW solar PV plant at its Weipa bauxite mine and processing facilities in north Queensland, the largest solar array to date to support an Australian mining operation.

weipa first solar plantThe first stage of the project – which could be extended to 6.7MW and include battery storage in coming years – began full operations this week. It will provide around 20 per cent of the energy needs for the facilities and township at Weipa, cutting Rio Tinto’s diesel use by around 600,000 litres a year.

The Weipa solar PV facility is the first of what is expected to be many mining facilities to turn to solar PV and other technologies for reduce the costs of electricity, which even with a falling oil price is still expensive.

 In Western Australia, the Degrussa copper mine is also building Australia’s largest solar and battery storage proposal to date, with a proposed 10.6MW solar PV plant plus 6MWh of battery storage installed at its off-grid site, 900km north-east of Perth.

For the moment, however, Australian miners are still unwilling to divert their own funds to such programs, with both the Weipa and the Degrussa projects being largely funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and in the case of Degrussa, by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation as well.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said the funding is justified because the Weipa project could bolster the mining industry’s confidence in renewable energy as a reliable off-grid power source.

weipa first solar“This is the first time a remote Australian mining operation has been supplied with power from solar PV on such a scale,” Frischknecht said in a statement.

“The success of phase one is set to create a precedent for industry by demonstrating that solar PV is a viable option for powering off-grid locations, like mine sites, in Australia.”

ARENA provided $3.5 million for the first part of the project and will provide up to $7.8 million for the second phase, which could reduce the consumption of diesel by around 2.3 million litres of diesel a year, and provide the majority of its power requirements.

The facility was built by US solar manufacturer First Solar.

 

 

  

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  • Marka

    What the price that Rio is paying for diesel up there?

    • Alex Rogers

      You & I pay $0.38 in excise on every litre of diesel we buy. Rio (and the other miners) pay $0.00. This costs us $174/taxpayer/year – to subsidise some of the richest companies in the world to burn more fossil fuel. If we pulled that subsidy (which costs us $5bn each year, $2bn of which goes to mining industry) I think that we’d have a lot more hybrid power generation in the outback, with or without direct ARENA funding.

  • tnomail

    “cutting Rio Tinto’s diesel use by around 600,000 kites a year” I am not familiar with this unit of measure. 🙂

  • MaxG

    Interesting how we shout hooray, when public funding fills private coffers.

    • Alex Rogers

      Yes, I also asked why taxpayers are paying for a rich miner to go partly renewable. Part of the answer can be found on ARENA’s website: “It is increasing awareness and knowledge within the mining sector of the processes required for developing and operating renewable energy systems in remote off-grid energy locations and the economic benefits that are possible through investment in renewable energy….Renewable energy solutions can assist mining operations to reduce costs, but the industry will remain skeptical until the economics and reliability of solar energy are proven.” This does make sense to me – but first I’d prefer to stop subsidising their diesel costs.

    • DDK

      I don’t care who is getting the money. The important thing is that 600,000 litres less of diesel will be used a year.

      • MaxG

        🙂 A valid point.

        • Alex

          Overall two million is about a quarter of shell/viva’s geelong refinery, doing 107,000 barrels per day, so I did the maths and since diesel makes up around a quarter of liquids from a barrel, it’s pretty significant. Mega refineries in Singapore (of which there’s only three) or India would do a few times that, up to 500, one or two might do more, but it’s still pretty significant in their income. Since the refining companies are the oil companies, it’s pretty good in the middle of a glut to deliver them another blow. Since the oil price and returns for LNG are similar, it’s a great blow to all of that. It can make mining less costly for say coal, but then if they’re in the situation they are now ultimately it will still help the most efficient but end up hurting them, as it would lower price with competition charging less I presume. So yep, this is really a great thing and if more mega mines went to it, or even better electrifying trucks and trains so it can all work on that, it would save heaps of diesel. For these mines there’s heaps and heaps more who could use it, although smaller mines are closing, this is actually best for fairly permanent operations. If majority of cars use aluminium bodies, it would actually exceed capacity by double or something so for bauxite, they’d be pretty sure there’s good scope. Others on the edge of closing wouldn’t bother but if the big ones dominating use this more and more, plus some electrification there’ll be pretty significant effects on oil industry. That hurts horrible operations like tar sands in Canada very much so, it hurts gas industry heaps (fracking isn’t even viable now in the glut, they do so hoping it will rise whilst the well is at decent levels, it’s a gamble).

  • Alex Rogers

    Does anyone else feel uncomfortable about clear-felling bush-land to build solar arrays? I mean, its not as if they don’t have a little cleared patch here & there to use….

    • Minerva

      I have worked in Weipa and my guess is that they are building the arrays on previously mined and now revegetated areas. Bush grows over everything very quickly in the tropics.

      • Alex Rogers

        Thanks MInerva, good to know.

    • Mike Shackleton

      That clear space is a tailings dam. You don’t want to be building a solar farm on mud!