Renewable Energy Comes to a West Australian Mine

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A West Australian mine’s solar power project is leading a revolution in renewable energy, writes Chris Ryan.

Conditions are harsh in the desolate region just west of the Little Sandy Desert in Western Australia. Grey-green mulga shrubs cling to the flat parched earth. Hulking wedge-tailed eagles feast on roadside carrion. It’s an unforgiving place where a person can feel miniscule.

Sandfire Resources’ DeGrussa Copper-Gold Mine near Meekatharra, 900 kilometres north-east of Perth, looms over the surrounding landscape, rumbling 24 hours straight as it processes ore from the bowels of the earth. It’s an almost apocalyptic scene that would sit well in a Mad Max movie.

In his films, George Miller imagines a grim future in which life is brutal as people battle over dwindling fossil fuels. Despite the inhospitable environment, a much brighter vision of our energy future is unfolding at the DeGrussa mine site. 

When dawn breaks over the mine, a staggering 34,080 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are turned towards the sun, harnessing its energy. Spread over 20 hectares, the solar PV panels are part of Australia’s largest off-grid solar power project.

As the morning wears on, the sun beats down on the panels that track its path across the sky and most of the mine’s diesel generators fall silent.

“They’re doing something very exciting,” says Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) CEO Ivor Frischknecht about the DeGrussa Solar Power Project. “At peak solar times, practically all the energy for the entire mine is coming from solar. It’s pretty easy to have a big system and whack in a few solar panels; it’s much harder to drive your entire system off solar, because you need to be ready for when cloud comes over.” 

The 10.6-megawatt solar PV farm is integrated with the mine’s existing 19-megawatt diesel-fired power station. It’s backed by a six-megawatt lithium-ion battery system that maintains power levels when clouds block sunlight and the diesel generators have to fire back up. 

The trailblazing project, which achieved full generation capacity in May, will see the copper-gold mine cut its diesel fuel usage by five million litres a year (about 20 per cent) and reduce its annual CO2 emissions by 12,000 tonnes (more than 15 per cent).

A number of government agencies and companies collaborated to make this $40 million project a reality. ARENA provided $20.9 million of recoupable grant funding, while the government-owned Clean Energy Finance Corporation committed a $15 million loan. French renewable energy firm and facility owner Neoen contributed most of the balance; Juwi Renewable Energy, a subsidiary of a German company, was responsible for development and design; and OTOC Australia was involved in the construction.

“ARENA figured out pretty early on that solar would save businesses and consumers money if it was replacing diesel,” says Frischknecht.

“We’re in business so it’s got to make good economic sense,” says Sandfire CEO and managing director Karl Simich. “We can’t afford to be a charity but if you can undertake a transaction or strategy that at its core makes good business sense, that’s a wonderful starting proposition.”

The DeGrussa mine churns out 65,000-68,000 tonnes of copper and 35,000-40,000 ounces of gold a year. Keeping the power flowing is imperative for production. “We have to be 100 per cent self-sufficient and ensure we have maximum power availability, running heavy equipment without missing a beat,” says Simich. “If you have power going down on your processing facilities, you seize up plants, bog up pumps – it’s a disaster so you have to be risk-free.”

Sophisticated control systems balance diesel, solar and battery generation to ensure sufficient reserve capacity is available when clouds block the sun. “It really is state-of-the-art technology,” says Simich, adding that the project has attracted interest from across the globe.

Neoen Australia managing director Franck Woitiez concurs. “It’s the first of its kind but it’s not going to be the last one,” he says. “There are existing mines or projected mines for which we could deliver sustainable, predictable electricity out of solar.”

Sustainability is “a huge concern for everyone”, says Woitiez. “I don’t see the world moving towards a fossil fuel economy; the world is moving towards a renewable energy economy – it’s the future.”

It’s this sentiment that makes Australia’s vast arid interior look less like a post-apocalyptic landscape and more like a land of opportunity – one where we can enjoy a different kind of resources boom that will last as long as the sun rises in the east. 

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