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What are the first steps towards sustainable mining?

By Matthew Zafuto
07-12-2022 | 7 min read

Digitalization, automation and the shift from diesel to electrification are three of the major trends that are having a profound impact on the mining industry. On top of increasingly mounting pressures, mining operators are feeling the pinch to meet sustainability goals and adopt new digital technologies. But what are the first steps they can take to overcome these challenges?

In a recent roundtable event, we caught up with three of the mining industry’s key figures for an interesting and open discussion about the future of this practice.

Dr. H. Sebnem Düzgün, Ryan Conger and Tommi Fältmars each provided their insight and predictions into the future electrification and sustainability of this sector, whilst also touching on other important topics, including how technology is driving a new era, digitalization, innovation and ESG.

You can watch the on-demand recording of the event below. Otherwise, I’d like to take this opportunity to look at some of the key themes which were discussed and look at the future of mining in more detail. 

The road to a digital & sustainable future – how do mining operators “crack” it?

Hitachi Energy is bringing together a panel of expert voices from across the mining industry for a powerful and insightful discussion on how to “crack” the prevalent challenges faced by mines around the world today.

Mining Challenges

The industry faces many challenges in its bid towards sustainability. Not only are cost volatility and regulatory oversight of concern, mines are currently facing additional pressures, namely:

  • How can they improve their stewardship of the environment whilst increasing profitability?

  • How can they increase production schedules to meet their customer demands whilst also increasing safety

One of the prime causes of concern I see from our customers is how to transform their operations to meet the above challenges, whilst also maintaining the efficiency of their current operations.

It may be best to provide a larger mining picture here. Perhaps the greatest roadblock to carbon neutrality is the fact that mining is so energy intensive; the deeper you go underground, the more intensive and expensive it becomes. Other major electrical loads include ventilation systems to maintain good air quality and remove existing vehicle exhaust, conveyor systems to bring ore to the surface and pumping systems to drain water from the mine.

Generating real, long-term change is no small feat. Incorporating digital technology and direct electrification using renewable energy provides a tangible plan for change. Let’s look at how. 

The role of electrification and digitalization

Electrification and digitalization can be incorporated across a mine’s operations, but let’s take transportation in this instance to understand how.

Mining is one of the leading industries in regard to automation and remote operations – many of today’s haul trucks are autonomous vehicles with no drivers. As mines look to expand electrification they’re also looking to how they can increase their ‘automation footprint’ to which digitalization is a key enabler.

Hitachi Energy’s innovations address both open pit and subterranean operations in a few ways:

  • The flash charging of electric haul trucks where we are looking at adapting this technology that is present within buses and trains for the requirement for megawatt charging systems for these larger vehicles.
  • Electrification will tie into both the local grid and the broader grid where utilities are served from.
  • Power quality is a primary concern and Hitachi Energy has delivered field-proven solutions to address the requirements necessary to ensure power quality remains intact whilst this transformation is taking place.

Why am I raising this point? It’s important because if the power quality at a mine site is impaired during this transition, then this could decrease the lifespan associated with the core mining assets e.g. crushers, sag mills, excavators, etc.

With these various facets to consider on the path to sustainability, choosing a partner like Hitachi Energy who can bring their expertise and knowledge to deliver electrified vehicles and adapt the technology behind these can ensure that all outcomes are considered and power quality remains intact.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that all mine sites will benefit from electrification regardless of size because their energy consumption is so critical to their operations.

Technology, innovation and data

Technology will drive our sustainable future. Today, digital solutions are helping us to identify and understand our energy usage and consumption. From this, we can determine where we can make efficiencies, see where we’re using too much energy, which processes aren’t working etc. Once we understand this level of detail, we can implement improvements.

Tommi Fältmars, Director of Energy & Decarbonization at Newmont Corporation, illustrates this point: 

As we electrify our fleets and equipment, our energy consumption will of course increase. For us to be sustainable we need to make efficiencies wherever possible. Through technology, we’ll be able to identify where our energy is coming from, where our trouble spots are and where we could make improvements across the mine site.

Tracking and understanding the data surrounding our operations is crucial for us to make effective changes.

As we progress in digitalizing our operations, it’s likely we’ll have a reliable system further down the line that can help us monitor, control and predict consumption. It’s an exciting prospect!

More benefits than just lowered emissions

Implementing electrification, digitalization and renewable energy sources will provide more than lowered emissions; mines can become better stewards of the entire environment around them.

If we look at diesel powered operations – whether that be the trucks or the back-up generator – the less reliance we have on these then the greater the impact we have on the wider environmental eco system. How? Well, when you consider that a mine often stores millions of litres of diesel fuel on-site, not only can we reduce emissions from using this source of fuel, but we negate the possibility of spillages.

Minimizing the use of diesel fuel minimizes environmental impact in more ways than one.

If we consider the panel’s discussion, one of the examples they provided was the use of digital twin technology to help understand the impact certain operations and differing load volumes are having on the grid.

For example, Hitachi Energy’s IdentiQ solution enables customers to improve the management of power grid assets by collating all information into one digital location for seamless access. This approach truly optimizes operations and empowers smarter decision making by delivering the right resources and information to the right people at the right time.

The first steps towards change

We’ve certainly seen our customers looking for partners to help guide them through this transformation. The points raised amongst the panel and within this blog come at a time when the industry is facing extreme pressure to deliver more goods to the market.

Deciding where to start can be difficult – especially as each mine site may be at a different stage of their electrification journey. Having a trusted partner to help guide the industry through this transformation is incredibly beneficial.

These are core competencies of Hitachi Energy. For example, as a mine electrifies its operations, we can conduct an energy site survey to understand and plan for today’s and tomorrow’s energy based on the life of the mine. Or, as more and more operations become autonomous, we can look at the communication requirements and help ensure the local grid is operated in an optimally efficient manner. 

Planning for 2030, 2050 and beyond

If we look at the bigger picture of what we’re trying to achieve, we can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. But in a good way, as we really are on our way to reduced emissions, carbon neutrality and sustainability throughout mining operations.  

A common approach by our panellists is the testing of solutions which will help them achieve their short(er)-term 2030 goals. If they can achieve these, then the technology can be tweaked and used to achieve the greater 2050 sustainability goals.

The industry is truly working together to discover, test and optimize for a smarter and greener future. Small gains really do lead to a big impact. 

Instilling sustainable operations now for future mines

When we look at the renewable energy transition, digital transformation and the electrification element working in tandem, it’s not just today’s mines which will benefit. If we collaboratively work together on getting these initiatives and technological advancements in place, then we can push the industry towards building a sustainable and even, self-sustaining, mine for decades to come. 

How can we achieve success in the future?

One of the key take-aways from this session was that mines are facing the same concerns and constraints – regardless of where they are or what material they mine.

The energy transition will provide challenges but, a future of safe, profitable and sustainable mining relies upon electrification, automation and digitalization.

Whilst change is often a daunting prospect with lots of facets to consider, embracing it is necessary if we are to achieve a carbon-neutral future.

So…are you ready for change?

Two workers and quarry in background

Contact our mining team if you’d like to know more about electrifying your mining operations

Matthew Zafuto
Vice President, Industry Segment, Hitachi Energy

Matthew (Matt) Zafuto is the Vice President for the Industry segment, Hitachi Energy and has been a leader and catalyst for corporate and energy industry change for over three decades.  Over the course of his career, he has focused on driving business process changes with technology innovations in the energy, water and industrial segments. 

In 2013, Matt was appointed vice chairman of the Board of Directors for the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC) and in 2016 he was appointed as a director of CleanTX, an economic development and professional association for clean energy technology.

Matt holds a BS in Business Administration with a major in Management Information Systems from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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