As with most environmental solutions, electric mining equipment (EME) offers opportunities for reducing capital and operating expenditures, while providing a host of solutions to address risks. These lower risks include decarbonization; curtailment of colossal ventilation expenses to evacuate fumes, particulate matter and heat from diesel engines; and improved employee health and working conditions. Higher profits, diminished risks and enhanced social acceptability associated with EME, are hard to beat.
Upfront capital expenditures
Contrary to common public perceptions, according to an Ernst & Young survey of 200 global mining executives on risks, environmental and social issues come in first, decarbonization ranks second and capital sixth.
This is corroborated by the International Energy Agency which found that two-thirds of the top 20 mining companies have emissions reduction targets for 2030.
Electrification of mining activities addresses the full spectrum of these priorities, better working and health conditions and decarbonization, while reducing operating costs.
But high fleet upfront costs in the order of 25% to twice that of diesel version – depending on many variables – are stumbling blocks for risk-adverse mining industry corporate cultures. Adoption of new technological paradigms requires critical mass of successful examples. The pioneer Canadian projects are described in this piece.
To take the edge off the price tag, Canada’s MacLean Engineering and Sweden’s Epiroc offer the option of batteries as a service (BaaS). The BaaS package excludes batteries from the purchase price or leasing. With BaaS, the EME provider takes on responsibility from battery certification, maintenance to upgrades.
And unlike the purchaser of a passenger vehicle for whom the sticker price is of prime importance, a business reviewing fleet options is more inclined to look at the lifecycle benefits and costs.
Over the lifecycle, EME pros outweigh the cons, compared to their diesel counterparts.
Shrinking ventilation, energy and maintenance expenses
For underground mines, ventilation and cooling expenses are of prime importance. EME offers a major advantages in this regard.
Ventilation and cooling expenses represent 25% to 40% of total of a mine’s energy costs, and 40 to 50% of mining energy consumption. The evacuation of diesel fumes contaminants and heat from diesel equipment, combined with high underground temperatures that can range from 40° to 80°, contribute to these ventilation costs.
In mines with automated air flow systems, designed to adjust to area-specific needs, EME can reduce ventilation costs by about 50 percent.
For deep mines, since ventilation and cooling costs increase relative to a mine’s depth, the complexity of evacuating pollutants and heat are proportionately greater.
For an isolated mine powered by a grid relying on natural gas, electricity production to power the ventilation and cooling can represent 75% of total emissions of a mine.
Ventilation and energy requirements intersect with vehicle energy efficiency. While diesel engines offer only 45% efficiency, the efficiency of electric motors is 95%. Regenerative braking adds to the energy cost reduction. Together these factors reduce ventilation needs by 30% to 50%.
On performance, EME can match or exceed conventional diesel machines. Electric mining trucks can haul twice as much as their diesel counterparts.
Maintenance is another major plus because EME requires significantly less maintenance, having fewer moving parts.
Exhaust emissions from diesel vehicles are usually the principal source of underground mining CO2.
Consequently, EME can reduce the carbon footprint drastically. The Borden Mine has achieved a 70% emissions reduction by switching to an entirely electric fleet of equipment.
Aggregating across EME types, EME can reduce emissions by 500 tonnes/vehicle.
Together this augers well for bold greenhouse gas targets.
The BHP emissions reduction targets for 2022 was at or below the level of 2017; for 2030, 30% below the 2020 level; and net-zero by 2050.
Health of employees
For miners, diesel equipment takes a heavy toll on physical and mental health.
Diesel equipment brings on worker stress associated excessively high temperatures; loud non-stop droning noises; relentless vibrations and/or abrupt continuous jolts; and lung cancer.
On lungs, diesel equipment spews out a carcinogenic carbon and sulfur dioxide which mixes with highly toxic particulate matter. This can be as toxic as asbestos and arsenic. The latter consequences are especially associated with mining drills.
EME either eliminates, or significantly reduces, these problems.
Remote and autonomous technologies of some EME models further smooth out the employee experience.
A survey of Borden Mine EME employees found that 90% of would not want to go back to diesel-powered equipment.
Fire risks are one other consideration for workers. With diesel vehicles, extreme temperatures are exasperated when engine heat is combined with the flammable fuels. Clearly, the EME alternative is less of a fire hazard. The use of EME can reduce temperatures by 85%. Though Epiroc first introduced EME in 2013, there has never been a fire with their equipment.
All these considerations are increasingly important, especially with a trend towards deeper, more expensive mines with longer development timelines. Such mines entail longer distances to move goods, in tight spaces, with greater air quality challenges.
Battery charging can be addressed by fast chargers. Chargers can be placed within the mine, but this can cause complex logistics should there be different types of EME in the mine.
An alternative, Canada’s MacLean Engineering offers on-board chargers, thus minimizing charging infrastructure requirements.
Battery swapping is another option. It can make up for “lost time” for battery charging.
The Swedish Sandvik 10-tonne loader has a battery swapping feature with the dimensions of a 7-tonne diesel loader. The Sandvik EME lineup includes 50-tonne truck and 40 tonne trucks.
Remote controls and hydraulics
While hydraulics is powered by the engine of a diesel vehicle, with EME, the power comes directly from the electric motor.
Also, remote controls can come in handy for wheel slippage.
Electric trucks for open-pit mines
For open pit mines, since above ground mining truck and excavation operations have repetitive tasks within the confines of a small work area, range and infrastructure are not major challenges. The benefits are measured in emissions reduction, energy savings and lower maintenance expenses.
Canada, a global EME hub
With benefits for employers and employees alike, mining firms around the world are gaining confidence in EME options from trucks, underground loaders, hoists for underground trains and other mine-specific solutions.
The good news is that Canada may be viewed as the EME hub in the world. Since 80 percent of the EME in operation around the globe is in Ontario and Quebec and there are 8 EME manufacturers in Ontario, Canada is a global leader in EME applications.
Canadian EME manufacturers are MacLean Engineering, MEDATECH Engineering Services, Kovatera, Miller Technologies, RDH-Sharf, FVT Research, and Rail-Veyor Technologies Global. Canada’s Budget 2023 refundable tax credits for zero-emission vehicle manufacturing will benefit these companies.
So too, EME sector benefits will accrue from opportunities from the global tsunami of critical mineral projects. Many of these mining stakeholders seek optimum sustainability profiles. That the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) US$369 climate package and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law US$7 billion for the battery supply chain both include North American critical minerals are especially strong catalysts for critical mineral project stakeholders to go green. Canada’s Budget 2023 covers critical minerals as well.
Since 2016, MacLean has delivered 50 EME units to Canada, the U.S. and South Africa.
Unfortunately, foreign companies dominate the Canadian EME market to-date. Howbeit, the trio of Canada’s Budget 2023, the IRA and BIL, may change the economics in favour of Canadian companies.
The transition to include of Canadian companies is already in progress with Glencore selecting a combination of European and Canadian EME manufacturers for its Onaping Depth nickel and copper mine, The mine with a depth 2,500 metres below the surface, near Sudbury, Ontario, will produce high-grade nickel ore that is much demand for electric vehicle batteries.
With inadequate ventilation at this depth to address diesel fumes and high temperatures, this project is not economically and physically feasible with traditional mining equipment. Hence, the mine has been designed for EME at the outset. Production is expected to begin in 2024.
For Onaping Depth, the primary supplier is Swedish-based Epiroc for 23 task-specific vehicles. Canadian EME manufacturer, MacLean Engineering was selected for 17 electric utility machines. Ontario’s Kovatera will supply KT200-e personnel carriers.
Remote and autonomous technologies and safety systems for wireless operations are found throughout the mine. Telematics will oversee machine productivity and performance in real-time.
The Newmont Goldcorp all-electric Borden Mine in Ontario is another with both European and Canadian EME, EME from MacLean Engineering and Sweden’s Sandvik. The mining company claims their initiative will avoid 50 percent of emissions compared to conventional operations, or 5000 tonnes/year.
The Agnico-Eagle Kirkland Lake Gold mine in northeastern Ontario too boasts of its Macassa Mine electrification with a European and Canadian fleet of EME from Epiroc, RDH-Scharf and Sandvik Artisan EME. While the mix of models is considerable, Sandvik accounts for 100 percent of the batteries and drive systems, with purpose built cut out battery swapping bays.
In contrast, Vale Canada has gone 100% European with Epiroc and Sandvik EME for its Canadian electric vehicle fleet for its Creighton, Coleman, Copper Cliff, Garson and Thompson mines. This migration to EME is in alignment with its commitment to invest $2 billion by 2030 to combat climate change.
FVT Research of Pitt Meadows, BC, is an Epiroc EME partner for the integration heavy-duty battery powered drive systems.
Regarding Quebec, Nouveau Monde Graphite (NMG) intends to have an EME fleet of 60 units to become the world’s first fully electric open-pit mining operation. NMG is working with Caterpillar to test and develop its EME lineup. NMG EME will include hydraulic excavators, mining trucks, wheel loaders, dozers, and motor graders, charging and energy storage infrastructure. Equipment maintenance services will also be provided. An hourly fee will be charged for use of EME, with an option to purchase or lease them.
Should NMG be successful in its goal to have a 100% EME fleet, the annual avoided environmental impacts and expenditures would be in the order of 88,000 litres of diesel and 220 tons of emissions.
The NMG objective is to have an entirely electric fleet by 2028.
Another Quebec EME mining precedent is that of the underground Agnico Eagle Goldex mine near Val d’Or which uses electric rail conveyors. In this case, the EME is a low emission, fully-electric, battery-free and TrulyAutonomous electric rail solution, comprising six trains powered by 90 electric drive-stations from Rail-Veyor Technologies Global (RVTG).
The structure was initially designed to average 6000 tonnes of minerals/day for long distances that include steep inclines and many corners. These projections were exceeded with 248,290 tonnes of ore transported during the month of May 2022. The set-up displaces 10 diesel trucks consuming 40 litres/hour and functioning 18-20 hours/day.
A different type of electric rail system in Quebec is used in the Lamaque mine of Eldorado Gold, near Goldex. This rail operation entails hanging the system from the roof. This Shallow Angle Mining System is the product of Minrail of Val d’Or. This system is very efficient for difficult to access, low worker safety, areas.
Lastly, in Saskatchewan, BHP has ordered eleven electric vehicles, ten battery electric vehicles and one electric loader from Sandvik, for its new Jansen Potash Project. This mine, 140 km east of Saskatoon, is potentially the world’s largest potash mine. The mine’s commercial production is expected to begin in 2027. The 18-tonne electric loader has the dimensions of a 14-tonne truck, rendering it possible to manoeuvre through a 4.5 by 4.5- metre tunnel. The Jansen mine will have lower CO2 per tonne than other potash mines in Saskatchewan, while improving the health conditions for miners and productivity.
The aforementioned examples of mine-specific EME operating environments illustrate EME advantages in terms of returns on investments, decarbonization plus health and working conditions of employees. As such, EME reduces strategic risks.
New mining projects can no longer repeat the same mistakes over and over again and expect different results.
Decarbonization, environmental plus employee health and working conditions, are inescapable considerations to operate a modern mine and obtain social acceptability.
EME provides a path for social acceptability, something which has become especially important with the rapidly expanding market for critical minerals supply chains and heightened social awareness.
Canada’s Budget 2023 helps in this regard with its support for A Growing Clean Economy. In particular, Budget 2023 comprises tax credits for the manufacturing of zero-emission vehicles.
Intense global developments for critical minerals to accommodate the breakneck expansion of the electric vehicle sector and the combined impacts of the U.S inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will substantially expand the market for potential client companies desiring ideal sustainability projects.
True, not all mining companies will see things this way and mining practices in emerging economies will likely be among the last to benefit.
Nevertheless, just as renewables have reached maturity where they now represent 90% of new annual electric generation capacity; and electric vehicles will reach a tipping point soon; the mining industry is among the next frontiers to integrate into the clean economy.
Improved productivity and profitably complete the package for a bottom line favourable on all accounts.