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Charging Ahead: The Electrifying Journey of Mining Fleets

The mining sector stands at the precipice of a profound transformation. As the urgency of decarbonization intensifies, developing and operating environmentally sustainable operations is no longer optional but a necessity. This was made abundantly clear at the recent Mines and Energy conference I was fortunate enough to attend.

Industry experts from mining, energy, and technology sectors shared their insights on the electrification of mining fleets. It became evident that this isn't just about reducing emissions but is reshaping the mining industry altogether. It necessitates rethinking mine design, the vehicles we use, and the energy systems we rely on.

The Brucejack Electric Truck Project

The electrifying journey is not without challenges, yet the rewards are evident in the successful cases such as the Brucejack electric truck project implemented by Newcrest in Canada. Once the first electric truck was introduced, the demand for more was immediate. The benefits extended beyond reduced emissions, improving driver amenities, and eliminating the risk of transporting diesel across a glacier to the site.

The project was bolstered by grant funding and saw tangible results. Cycle times decreased by 22% and the truck's availability was at a remarkable 92%. When fully loaded, the electric truck was 40-50% faster than its diesel counterparts, making it quieter, faster, and more comfortable. The Brucejack case is an exciting example of the potential that electric vehicles hold for the mining industry.

The Electrification Landscape

The mining fleet is a diverse ecosystem of vehicles, each with its own characteristics and challenges when it comes to electrification. The fleet comprises light and auxiliary vehicles, underground load and haulage, and surface and long haulage vehicles.

Light and auxiliary vehicles, the drill and blast supporting armada, are considered the low-hanging fruit of electrification. Their conversion poses minor disruptions to production and emissions, but offers significant improvements in working conditions. Importantly, it kick-starts the mindset shift necessary for the broader vehicle electrification journey.

The underground load and haulage vehicles, however, represent a more substantial challenge. As the main contributors to underground mining emissions, their electrification is key to significant emission reduction. Yet, their size and availability requirements, coupled with high upfront capital costs, make this a more complex task.

Finally, the long-haul trucks, especially the 100-tonne+ ultra class behemoths, face their own unique set of hurdles. The high upfront capital cost differential and vehicle availability are major obstacles, but the potential payoff is equally substantial.

The Roadblocks and Detours 

The path to full electrification is fraught with challenges. From development timelines and commercial hurdles, to charging systems and skills, and regulatory and tax disincentives - the road ahead is bumpy. But these roadblocks are not insurmountable. As Siobhan Cribb, Program Director of Net Zero Emissions at Newcrest Mining, suggests, we must think in terms of horizons, each with its own set of goals and strategies.

Horizon 1 is about leveraging high-technology readiness to replace light and auxiliary vehicles. The current technology meets duty cycle requirements and is cost-competitive on a total cost of life basis. While emissions abatement is a driving force, it also improves the operator environment, making it a great hook to build confidence.

Horizon 2 involves system-level changes using technologies that have been tested elsewhere. It's about finding new ways to maintain productivity while enabling the testing of new technologies. This horizon may require consortium approaches to pool resources for investments.

Horizon 3 is about revolutionary changes, considering entirely new ways of doing things that drastically reduce energy consumption, like “swarm mining”.

The System-Level Revolution

Electrification represents a shift in thinking about the mine as a whole. We need to orchestrate load and generation across all aspects of the operation, from the trucking fleet to the ancillary and utility fleet. This integrated system approach is pivotal to the effective transition towards electrification.

As mines transition from traditional thermal power supply to renewable wind and solar generation, electrified mining fleets represent a major new flexible electrical load within the mine site. These loads can be co-optimised with intermittent supply, requiring more holistic mine planning and operations where energy supply, transport options, and mine operations are all designed and managed together.

This change is monumental, dwarfing even the leap to autonomous haulage. As John Mulcahy of Rio Tinto said, "Autonomous haulage was a big change, but electrification is an even bigger change". While electrification offers a pathway to carbon-free mining, it just doesn’t have the flexibility and energy density that diesel provided and so the technical and operational challenges to integrate it are daunting.

Despite the challenges, the industry is full of trailblazers making substantial strides. At BluVein, they're developing a universal dynamic connector for haulage electrification, exploring options from battery swapping and static charging to dynamic charging and hydrogen fuel cells. These pioneering efforts showcase the industry's commitment to innovation, learning, and adaptability. They underscore the importance of system-level thinking, where it's not just about individual elements but about energy management and planning as a whole. The focus is not just on the vehicles, but on the entire mining ecosystem, from the charging infrastructure to the power system.

Powering into the Future

The electrification of mining fleets is a journey towards a better working environment, significantly reduced emissions, and a more sustainable future. It's about transforming the total cost of ownership of electric fleets into returns for owners. It's about making the mining industry a vital player in the global energy transition.

The electrification of mining fleets is not just about the vehicles, but about the whole system, powering us into a future of sustainable mining. While the path is challenging and filled with roadblocks, the mining sector is proving that it is more than capable of tackling these hurdles head-on. And at Gridcog, we're looking forward to playing our part.

The challenges of modelling electric fleet charging (static charging, battery swapping, trolly charging) and other dynamic loads together with renewable energy supply and battery energy storage is a unique fit with our simulation and optimisation technology. The electrification of mining fleets is not just about the vehicles, but about the whole mining and energy system, together powering us into a future of sustainable mining.

Fabian Le Gay Brereton
Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder
June 15, 2023
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