Until a few years ago, the words ‘mining’ and ‘sustainability’ were rarely used in the same sentence. The public perception of the industry, in general, appeared to be focused more on the volume of commodities produced than on protecting the environment and communities that surround its operations.
Times have changed. Today’s mining companies are deeply concerned and committed to sustainability. At the same time, new technology is using more periodic table elements than ever before, all of which need to be mined or extracted.
Many producers are focused on helping to fight climate change — not just because it’s the right thing to do, can reduce risk and save money — but many of the metals produced are essential in the global transition to a low-carbon economy.
Sustainable products like electric cars and solar panels rely on a combination of materials like copper, lithium, silver, zinc, titanium and rare earth elements, but the extraction and production of these materials also play a critical role.
For David Willick, vice-president and mining, minerals, and metals segment leader for North America at Schneider Electric, the conversation for the mining industry is two-fold: embracing sustainability at the source of the resource and across the entire production chain.
This approach helps to ensure the longevity of the industry, which is critical considering that mining represents about five per cent of Canada’s GDP and accounts for one in every 30 jobs in the country, according to the Mining Association of Canada.
“There has been a paradigm shift” in how miners operate, says Roussos Dimitrakopoulos, a professor and the Canada research chair sustainable mineral resource development at McGill University. He says companies want to boost their extraction of raw materials in a sustainable way.
Beyond increasing production, mining companies are investing more in different technologies that reduce their environmental impact and give visibility into operations to make sustainable choices.
“Digital transformation yields many benefits that deliver on energy and operational efficiency, sustainability and safety — and this is where Schneider Electric has been able to help businesses make meaningful strides,” says Mr. Willick.
Schneider Electric Canada helps mid- to large-size firms track their energy consumption by installing sensors that can indicate high-usage times and areas, enabling them to pinpoint where they can cut electricity costs, manage their sources of energy and track and report carbon-reduction measures.
“Some mining processes are very energy-intensive," says Tara Rana, global solutions architect focused on mining, materials and metals with Schneider Electric. He says that once these areas are identified, Schneider can install ‘variable frequency drives,’ enabling the motors to run at different speeds and allowing the power usage to be more nuanced. Mr. Willick says firms can lower their energy consumption by 50 per cent with these drives in specific applications.
In addition, microgrids have become one of the main solutions that Schneider Electric deploys in mining environments to help drive energy-efficient outcomes. They are used as power backup in emergencies or aid the power distribution grid during periods of heavy demand. By using microgrids, different sources of energy can be bundled — whether it is electric or solar — and released strategically as needed.
“It allows real-time, automatic management of the most optimal energy source at any given time.” Mr. Willick says. “That level of control is essential for using energy efficiently.”
Australian miner Roy Hill partnered with Schneider Electric to create an integrated operating model that provides end-to-end visibility of its value chain. Roy Hill’s remote operations centre, located in Perth about 1,300 km from the mine, tracks all mine operations in real-time and provides energy and sustainability data in one single, global view.
With the current global focus on sustainability, combined with the need to be more competitive, the biggest mining firms are moving in the right direction, says Mr. Willick.
An example is global mining giant Rio Tinto plc, which has committed to “substantial decarbonization” of its business by 2050. The company says more than 70 per cent of its electricity comes from renewable sources. Similarly, Elysis, a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Alcoa, is working on a project to produce zero-carbon aluminum in Quebec.
In Canada, Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. has also announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2050. Since 2011, Teck said it has put in place projects and initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at its operations by 289,000 tonnes, or the equivalent to taking over 88,000 combustion engine cars off the road.
“We’re seeing significant interest in becoming more sustainable within the operations and practices of mining companies,” Mr. Willick says. “It’s fantastic that there’s more awareness, but we need to continue to push ourselves and demand more sustainable options to have a meaningful impact on our planet’s future.”