The electrification of equipment and operations is high on the agenda for an increasing amount of mining companies, driven, among other things, by the potential for cost reduction, energy efficiency and an easier path to a licence to operate.
Particularly the use of battery-electric underground fleets is now being trialled and planned at various operations, including Newmont Goldcorp's Borden and Glencore's Onaping Depth projects in Canada.
The electrification trend has now also been highlighted by a recent survey, commissioned by EY and conducted by the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland (Australia) and the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia (Canada).
EY's global mining and metals leader Paul Mitchell believes the mining sector is indeed close to witnessing an "electrification revolution", "driven by significant cost reduction potential, lowered carbon emissions and improved worker health benefits".
"This is critically important, given the World Health Organisation has declared that diesel particulates now belong in the same deadly category as asbestos, arsenic and mustard gas," he added.
The survey asked leaders at mining companies and OEMs about the opportunities and challenges related to electrification. This brought four key themes to the surface: the improved economics and strengthened licence to operate of electrified mines; the role of collaboration to unlock better electrification solutions; the need for a rethink on mine design; and the different skills required for advanced technology deployment.
"It is important to start thinking about building agility into mine design to leverage the potential benefits in asset flexibility, lower ventilation requirements and the human footprint," Mitchell explained.
"The future of electrification in mines requires a paradigm shift in thinking — from existing known and proven technologies to new emerging technologies. We must realise that the challenges of the sector can be solved faster by collaboration - and a robust strategy, underpinned by gaining the right capabilities and an agile approach, is critical."
The survey found that electrification could reduce operational costs, but also up-front capital costs due to the reduced infrastructure needs of ventilation shafts in underground mines.
The report also made a case for agility in the face of technological change, seeing as what "makes economic sense today might not have similar results five years down the line". Miners are often seen as lagging behind when it comes to adoption of new technologies - and particularly the effective introduction of these solutions.
"You've got to make a call on technology, but don't get yourself stuck with that technology for 20 years. Acknowledge that in five years' time the technology will be different … It's a big leap of faith," a survey respondent said.
The reduction of diesel particulates will also result in improvements to worker health and safety.
"Calls to reduce mining's carbon emissions are growing louder. Swapping diesel for electricity is a way forward, but only if it comes from renewable sources. While, in the past, clean energy was not cost-effective, costs have fallen fast putting renewables on track to outpace all other sources of energy and account for 60% of all capacity additions by 2040," Mitchell wrote in a blog on EY's website.
A survey respondent said: "The biggest issue I see driving underground is human health. Over time that's going to push us toward electrification … We've got to be investing more in the technology to provide that safer working environment."
Read the full report here.