How can mining be made more sustainable?

Jon Lawson

Several initiatives are underway in the mining industry to improve energy efficiency and reduce the environmental damage. In March, ABB and Hitachi teamed up to examine the possibility of zero-emission trucks and now Caterpillar and Rio Tinto have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to see how zero-emissions autonomous trucks can be put to work at the latter’s Western Australian mining sites, in particular at Gudai-Darri in Pilbara, where the plan is to eventually roll out up to 35 new 220 tonne capacity Caterpillar 793 haulers. 

Caterpillar Group President Denise Johnson observed, “The integration of autonomy with a zero-emissions fleet demonstrates Rio Tinto’s commitment to reach net zero emissions. By leveraging these technologies across their sites, Rio Tinto can more safely increase productivity, efficiency and be more sustainable. We are pleased to be part of Rio Tinto’s sustainability journey and look forward to building on our long-standing collaboration.”

Rio Tinto’s Chief Commercial Officer Alf Barrios added, “Our ambition to reach net zero emissions across our operations is a priority. Reaching this ambition will require new and innovative solutions and partnerships with supplier partners like Caterpillar. This collaboration represents a small but important step on that journey. We look forward to working together to validate these zero-emissions haul trucks in just a few years’ time. The advanced technology at Gudai-Darri puts it at the forefront of new mining operations globally and we look forward to adding Caterpillar zero-emissions haul trucks to the site.”

Caterpillar does have existing electric machines and has since 2016. Now it has added the 794 AC to its range, which becomes its first electric drive model with the autonomous MineStar Command haulage system. The company is also working with BHP to expand on the real-world testing of new battery technology.

What can be done with mines when the mining is over?

Meanwhile, in Southwest Virginia exhausted coal fields are being viewed as potential solar power station sites. The Nature Conservancy and Dominion Energy Virginia have earmarked the former Red Onion surface mine in Wise County as the location of a 50 megawatt site with capacity to power up to 12,500 homes. They are planning to call the new 1,200 acre site the Highlands Solar project. 

Brad Kreps, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program noted, “Southwest Virginia and the wider Central Appalachian coalfields have an important role to play in the renewable energy economy. Some of the region’s former mined lands are well suited for solar development and by directing development towards these areas it will help us conserve the region’s intact forests for wood products, carbon storage, wildlife habitats, outdoor recreation and tourism. By collaborating with Dominion Energy and other companies on these initial projects, we hope to develop a model that can be replicated in other coal mining regions across the US.” 

Ed Baine, President of Dominion Energy Virginia added, “This project is a huge win for Southwest Virginia's economy. It's also another major step toward building a 100% clean energy economy in Virginia. Repurposing former coal mines for solar is a smart way to enhance the region's economy and bring renewables to Southwest Virginia.”

After the surveying and planning paperwork is complete, construction is scheduled to begin around 2024.

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