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In this article for Global Mining Review, Caitlin McKinnon, Motion Metrics, Canada, discusses the importance of decarbonising operations in the transition to green technologies.
The central challenge facing the mining sector today is the necessary transition to decarbonisation. This requires producers to dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while simultaneously ramping up production of the materials needed to power green technologies. But with challenge comes opportunity: while swift and expansive investment is needed to transform existing energy systems and infrastructure, mining companies that succeed at rapidly decarbonising their operations will be rewarded in the coming metals and minerals boom.
To stay on track for the Paris Agreement global 2˚C scenario, all sectors need to reduce GHG emissions from 2010 levels by at least 50% by 2050; to limit global warming to 1.5˚C, a reduction of at least 85% is needed.1 However, this is easier said than done, as a low-carbon economy is significantly more materials-intensive than traditional fossil fuel-based energy systems, and recycling minerals alone will not meet this demand.2 Solar and wind facilities, for example, are estimated to require up to 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminum, and 50 times more iron, copper, and glass than equivalent fossil fuel-powered facilities.3
Another example that puts the challenge into perspective is the market for electric vehicles. To achieve the Paris Agreement emissions reductions targets for the transport sector, it is predicted that 120 million electric passenger vehicles need to hit the roads around the globe. In order to make the batteries that will power those electric vehicles, demand for lithium is predicted to rise by more than 1000%. To put these numbers into perspective, the Tesla gigafactory alone will need 25 000 t of lithium – in addition to 17 million t of copper, 7000 t of cobalt, and 126 000 t of graphite.4
The rate of resource extraction worldwide is already three times faster now than it was 50 years ago5 but, according to a 112-page report released by the World Bank, production of key minerals needs to increase by more than 350% by 2050 to meet demand.6 How will producers elevate production above business-as-usual levels without further adding to GHG emissions? After all, mineral and metal processing and recycling presently contribute more than 15% of global emissions.2 There are no simple answers, but governments and industry are increasingly recognising the need for urgent change and reallocating resources to fund the step change.
It is estimated that a quarter of all professionally managed assets are now scrutinised based on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics, including rating indexes like the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the Carbon Disclosure Project. A United Nations network of investors called the Principles for Responsible Investment now comprises more than 3000 signatories and represent more than US$100 trillion of assets under management, as of March 2020,7 and major banks are following suit – in 2019, the BMO Financial Group pledged to mobilise US$400 billion in sustainable finance by 2025.8 As Henry Stoch, Risk Advisory and National Sustainable and Climate Change leader at Deloitte Canada, said: “Mining companies should recognise that there is a correlation between stakeholder sentiment and company valuation.”9
Governments are also taking their climate commitments more seriously and directing stimulus accordingly. In Canada, large companies that were unable to demonstrate adherence to their obligations under the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) were ineligible for federal COVID-19 relief funds.10 The Canadian federal government also announced an updated climate change plan that includes CAN$15 billion in new spending on climate initiatives. One arm of the updated climate plan includes the recapitalisation of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) – an arms-length federal foundation with a mandate to fund new clean technologies – through an investment of more than CAN$750 million over five years.11
Mining companies recognise the tide change and are pledging to join the fight against climate change. BHP Billiton, Anglo American, and Antofagasta Minerals have all announced plans to power local operations from entirely renewable resources, while Brazilian mining giant, Vale, has committed to achieving 100% self-production from renewable resources by 2025 in Brazil, and by 2030 globally. De Beers has also pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2030.12
These plans are ambitious and necessary, but switching to renewable energy will take time – at present, only 2.5% of the mining sector’s electricity comes from renewables. In the meantime, researchers estimate that half of the most cost-effective approaches to mitigating climate change up to 2030 will be realised through the implementation of energy efficiency technologies.2 With the stakes this high, and given that 70% of digital transformation initiatives fail to achieve their stated goals, mining companies should choose their technology vendors very carefully as they compete in the new green economy.13
Motion Metrics believes that value-aligned, subscription-based partnerships, where both buyers and suppliers have a stake in success, best promote the conditions for successful innovation. Like its customers, the company is a student of the sustainability movement – but having been at the intersection of mining and technology for nearly two decades, the company understands the challenges that large adopters face when navigating a rapidly changing landscape and dizzying array of innovation opportunities. It partners with opencast mines to measurably improve production and energy efficiency, while keeping employees safe. To accomplish these outcomes, it uses AI-enabled, military-grade cameras to radically optimise operations without interrupting the workflow.
With the Motion Metrics technology ecosystem, mines can start fighting climate change today, while saving up to US$30 million/y. By monitoring mine shovels, loaders, haul truck paths and conveyor belts, the ecosystem enables particle size measurements throughout the operation, truck and belt volume monitoring, ground engaging tools monitoring, and boulder detection. Motion Metrics then turns this data into actionable insights by tapping into highly skilled and experienced domain experts. The service has a payback period of weeks by delivering the following productivity and efficiency improvements:
Although these benefits are significant, Motion Metrics is just getting started. In September 2020, Motion Metrics secured a CAN$5.6 million investment from the federal government to lead a collaborative energy efficiency project titled: ‘A machine vision- and AI-based solution for optimal comminution in mineral processing circuits.’
With help from its consortium partners KAZ Minerals, Optimize Group, the University of British Columbia (UBC) Mining Department, and Steinert USA, the company will extend the value of its proven particle size analysis technology through development of specialised ore sensing techniques to remove waste rock from the processing stream and further increase energy efficiency.
Comminution, the process of progressively reducing the size of mined material, presently consumes approximately 4% of electrical energy worldwide and approximately 50% of overall power consumption at an average mine site. With this funding, Motion Metrics will develop a commercial mine-to-mill solution that will reduce energy consumption during the comminution process by at least 15%. For a medium-sized copper mine, this energy savings translates to approximately 130 000 t of carbon dioxide equivalent and 2.6 million m3 of freshwater savings each year.14
As the effects of climate change become more visible, major mining companies are acting to decarbonise existing energy systems and infrastructure. And while minerals production must increase to meet the growing demand for a green economy, technology provides a safe and sustainable path forward. Switching to renewables will take time, but existing energy efficiency technologies, such as those on offer from Motion Metrics, can help producers to begin the transition today.