Mining companies are taking a leading role in rolling out renewable energy generation in South Africa; this positive contribution – and others that will follow – nonetheless come with many complexities.
Recent months have seen a number of the country’s mining majors announce ambitious solar energy projects, for instance, showing that they are putting their weight behind their sustainability policies. Projects include a 100 MW solar photovoltaic plant by Anglo American Platinum, and a renewable power project pipeline announced by Sibanye-Stillwater that aims to generate 557 MW.
Anglo American has also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with global renewable energy company EDF Renewables to work together towards developing a regional renewable energy ecosystem in South Africa, aimed at meeting Anglo’s operational electricity requirements in South Africa through the supply of 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
Andrew van Zyl, director and principal consultant at SRK Consulting, said mineral customers are increasingly looking at the carbon footprint of their supply chain.
“The commodities that mines supply are clearly accompanied by a footprint of carbon emissions,” said Van Zyl. “Mining companies are well aware of the expectations of customers and regulators, and have been building their response into corporate sustainability policies and plans – which range from solar farms to hydrogen-powered vehicles.”
Among the initiatives emerging on the international stage – and in which SRK Consulting is involved – has been Europe’s RE-SOURCING project, he noted. Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the project works towards ensuring responsible and sustainable sourcing of minerals for Europe’s low-carbon future.
“As countries and customers look to reduce their carbon footprint, they will prefer suppliers with lower emissions – a factor which then becomes a competitive advantage,” he said. “Mines have engaged actively with this approach, and are practically investigating and testing technologies that can reduce emissions.”
He pointed out, however, that the mining process is built on a complex supply chain of expertise, equipment and products that will take time to adapt. Indeed, replacing traditional fossil fuel-based technology holds a range of challenges for mining companies.
“Every viable mining project is underpinned by the ability to declare an ore reserve with an acceptable level of confidence,” he said. “This applies to all modifying factors which affect the cost and rate at which the ore can be extracted.”
As mines take steps toward achieving lower-carbon operations, they must consider many useful inventions that could contribute in this direction – but not all have been fully proven. This makes it difficult for the responsible professional to sign off on an innovation’s application – even if it could make a valuable contribution toward carbon neutrality. Such an innovation could effectively increase the uncertainty associated with estimating the project’s feasibility.
“When reviewing a client’s plan for a mine, independent consulting firms like SRK must carefully investigate any change to a proven method or strategy – to establish their reliability and performance,” said Van Zyl. “This is not to say that nothing must change; on the contrary, part of our role is to ensure that clients benefit from continuous improvement in all mine-related processes.”
He emphasised that what is essential in this process is high-quality technical input from experienced advisors, capable of developing and assessing new approaches using a multi-disciplinary approach. This will ensure that technology-related risks are fully appreciated and mitigated, at the same time as leveraging opportunities to their fullest.