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Powering mines on the frontier

Published by
World Coal,


Venkie Shantaram, Aggreko.

Mines are no longer the hub of a community: the focal point for infrastructure and employment alike. The tradition of generations of families working in a pit has ceased to exist. In fact, mining is in a constant state of flux.

A supply and demand dynamic is shaping the coal industry. While demand for coal has remained consistent (the International Energy Agency [IEA] predicts global coal demand will increase at a rate of 2.8% year-on-year through to 2018), supplies are rapidly depleting. To reach those that remain, miners are employing increasingly expensive working practices. They are forced to explore further afield in increasingly remote and unstable locations to maintain productivity and meet demand.

Power is central to solving the challenges that have ensued.

Confidence in the industry has been rocked by a fear that escalating production costs will reduce profit margins. Essential reductions in CAPEX run in parallel to a range of challenges, from accessing capital in the first place to taking exploration to remote and inhospitable corners of the globe, as well as from mining deeper underground to adopting sustainable working practices.

Exploration

These new frontiers of exploration bring with them heightened geopolitical risk, infrastructure challenges and operating costs. Exploration and development is becoming increasingly complex, expensive and hazardous.


Temporary power in remote locations - Banro Resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Traditionally, the opening of a new mine would act as a catalyst for the installation of permanent infrastructure, which serves the surrounding area long after the mine has been decommissioned. However, the increasing prevalence of short-term and smaller-scale opportunities is coupled with a lack of support from local governments to invest in infrastructure.

The onus now is on an operating company to build the necessary roads and railways for transportation and the grid to power the project. Installing the necessary power infrastructure has become a commercial decision, not a community one.

For all the stability of a permanent solution, power plants require huge CAPEX and can take years to construct and bring online. Furthermore, with reserve grid capacity in many nations notoriously low, it is more than likely that operators would naturally consider the back-up support offered by a temporary power provider in order to anticipate the need to bridge the gap and allow energy intensive industries, such as mining, to flourish.

By contrast, temporary solutions are now more in keeping with the type of mining frequently encountered across the industry. The relative flexibility matches the transient nature of mining and – because mines are no longer the focal point of communities – people are more inclined to move for work.

The lifecycle of a mine has reduced from over 20 years to less than 10. It is simply becoming impractical for exploration companies to spend several years developing a permanent power infrastructure for such a short-term project, especially when the equipment is likely to remain unused once the mine has been decommissioned.


Temporary power in remote locations – Barrick gold mine in Tanzania.

The ability to ramp capacity up or down, according to need, fits with the project lifecycle, which of course extends to the point of decommissioning. When a mine is closed, rented equipment is removed and reused elsewhere – it is the sustainable option that does not drain local resources.

Flexible finance

According to EY, the mining industry’s inability to access capital is the single biggest problem it faces. The declining commodity price and decreased productivity has limited cash flow within the industry and made investors nervous and difficult to attract. Additionally, the depreciation of currencies in developing economies has taken a toll on CAPEX – large equipment is often priced in US dollars, so companies are finding themselves paying more for the same service.

One of the consequences of this trend is an increasing appetite across industry generally for renting large equipment. Power generation is no exception to this.

Rental power brings a number of financial advantages. The regular payments (which cover refuelling, staff and maintenance) are beneficial to accountants and financiers, as it aids the planning of expenditure and cash flow. This is attractive to investors as well: it enables a high level of transparency in company finances and mitigates the risk of mass capital outlay.


Aggreko’s mobile power solutions are transported by land, sea and air, ensuring installation in record time.

Equally, rental solutions do not come with the hidden surprises of owning equipment. Refuelling or emergency repairs to owned equipment can result in financial panic and cause a project to come to a standstill. With a rental contract, however, there will always be a back-up generator on site to ensure no downtime.

Going deeper

Aside from expensive extraction costs, modern, deep mining comes with serious occupational hazards. These can be mitigated with consistent ventilation and stringent temperature control.

Power providers of any guise must meet two temperature-related challenges. Firstly, the need to scale up and down power used for temperature control; and secondly, managing the ability of power systems to run throughout the life cycle of a mine.

Even fractional changes in conditions can have a serious impact on site equipment and result in decreased performance levels. A power failure and subsequent pause in ventilation could leave workers susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Unpredictable changes in surface temperature can cause heat exhaustion, which naturally becomes more common as the temperature rises.

Indeed, the worst case scenario for a mining business is for a mine to be rendered operationally unsafe throughout the warmest or coldest months of the year. Thus the ability of a temporary power provider to adapt their equipment to any given climate is one of its distinct advantages over permanent solutions. Temporary equipment can be moved, exchanged or shut down in a matter of days, if needed, whereas permanent installations can take months to shut down and decommission.

Sustainable mining

The coal industry has not escaped global pressures to improve its environmental footprint and to work more sustainably. The past few years have seen an increased demand for environmentally sustainable power solutions, as the infrastructure required to support a mine can often have an adverse impact on a local ecosystem.

Sustainability in this sense is not just about the physical infrastructure of a site, but how the site is powered.

Fuel choice plays a significant part in this equation and is more flexible when an operation does not solely rely on the grid for power. Integrating more sustainable forms of energy, such as natural gas, into a permanent grid requires an overhaul of existing infrastructure. Temporary solutions, by contrast, provide the flexibility to use more environmentally friendly fuels (where available), to power specific sites and help miners in their carbon footprint efforts – something investors are looking at with increasing fervor.

Not unrelated to this is the increasing use of technology to find fuel efficiencies or creative ways to reduce fuel use. Aggreko’s work in this arena has led to the refinement of the company’s G3 generators, which, in the form of the G3+, improve fuel-burning efficiency by 14%. It is also possible to capture gas that has previously been released or flared, clean it and feed it directly back into the energy infrastructure of a mine.

Conclusion

The demands and challenges that face the industry are constantly evolving; a flexible and scalable power supply more suited to the shorter life cycles is therefore essential. Gone are the days when a mine could run off an installed grid with a set peak capacity.

Temporary power has evolved with the industry – from a back-up in times of crisis to an essential cog in the wheel that keeps a mine turning.

Written by Venkie Shantaram. Edited by .

About the author: Venkie Shantaram is the Group Business Development Director at Aggreko.

Read the article online at: https://www.worldcoal.com/mining/09032015/powering-mines-on-the-frontier-venkie-shantaram-aggreko-coal2036/


 

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