No simple fix for mining companies searching for renewable energy

By Jamie Seidel

Too much. Too little. Too late.

“People say, ‘Oh, Australia, perfect. Lots of sun, lots of space’… It’s not that easy,” Rio Tinto chief Jakob Stausholm says of his company’s experience adopting renewable energy.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, Rio Tinto’s CEO said solar and wind weren’t simple green energy solutions for their expansive Australian mining operations.

“We’re used to big sites in mining, but, quite frankly, mining sites are small compared to the scale of these parks – and the world has not really done this at scale yet,” he said. “You actually first have to acquire the land, you have to get working with Indigenous people, you have to go through the cultural clearance of sites, etcetera.”

But the mining executive’s comments came as a study by the Australian National University found existing Australian solar and wind farms were having their output choked ahead of fossil-fuel sources to overcome grid congestion issues.

Put simply, there’s too much power entering the national network.

Nearly a dozen wind and solar farms had their generation curtailed for more than 100 days over a year. Two solar farms in particular, Molong and Manildra in western NSW, had their production halved.

“We can observe that the majority of solar curtailment occurs in NSW, while the majority of wind curtailment occurs in SA. Notably, the curtailment of solar energy alone in the NSW market region (418 GWh) is greater than the total curtailment of any other region,” the report says.

Also in Cosmos: When it comes to renewable energy, What is the grid?

But the problem is getting the electricity where it is needed, when it is needed.

This is why Rio Tinto, like many other big mining companies, is building its own solar and wind power plants in the Pilbara and Queensland.

It has completed a 34-megawatt solar plant at its Gudai-Darri mine in the Pilbara. It has also committed $600 million towards two 100MW solar power plants and a 200MWh battery in the region.

But, like the mines themselves, Stausholm says acquiring the land and all the necessary approvals are proving difficult.

And that’s a serious issue for Rio Tinto.

The miner was recently at the heart of an international scandal after two 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters were destroyed for an iron ore mine in 2021.

It cost the jobs of the company’s then-chief executive, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, two deputies, the chairman and a director. A parliamentary inquiry found Rio Tinto knew the value of what they were destroying “but blew it up anyway”.

“The whole process of environmental impact assessment is a proven thing; it works well,” Stausholm told the forum. “Obviously, we should try to speed it up.”

BHP chief executive officer Mike Henry, also addressing the World Economic Forum, said the mining industry needed to innovate more to meet carbon emission cutback promises.

Mike henry
BHP CEO Mike Henry

“Over the medium to long term, the mining industry has to get better at innovating and taking a bit more risk in deploying innovative technologies,” he said.

But he said another problem was soaring demand for lithium, cobalt and nickel for green-energy technology at a time production was beginning to fall.

“You need to invest capital just to overcome that, let alone increase supply,” Henry said. “And the supply is going to be coming from mines that are harder to find, oftentimes smaller and lower grade.”

That, he says, will ultimately mean more, smaller mines. And more concerns about water and electricity supplies, community and cultural impacts, and biodiversity issues.

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