The regional lead for integrated operations & remotisation at Hatch, Jarrod Bassan, explains why decarbonising the mining sector is a high-stakes endeavour that requires an industry-wide paradigm shift.
Highly sophisticated integrated operations are necessary to minimise the risks to the massive investments required for mining to go green.
Ambitious COP 26 targets to achieve net-zero carbon emissions requires the mining sector to adopt radical new approaches, technologies and ways of working that have yet to be developed. This poses enormous challenges for the industry.
Endeavouring to reach net zero emissions by introducing multiple new classes of equipment and operating approaches simultaneously will pose huge challenges for the industry, which has never experienced change at this rate before.
The potential for failure, delays and cost blowouts cannot be overestimated.
Mining companies will also need to balance short-term economic returns with massive investment in innovation, decarbonisation and environmental, social and governance (ESG) if they are to bring stakeholders along on the journey.
They will have to rely heavily on collaboration with third parties.
One of the most overlooked needs in mining decarbonisation is managing the significantly increased demand for electricity.
Mines will require vast additional supplies of green energy as they electrify diesel trucks and other equipment, which account for 50-60 per cent of a mine’s CO2 emissions.
Overseeing the reliable supply and storage of renewable energy at this scale is another challenge that miners have never faced before.
In Australia, where the focus is primarily on reducing the scope 1 and 2 emissions from mining and processing activities, Fortescue alone is investing over US$6 billion to make its iron ore mining operations carbon neutral by 2030, while Rio Tinto and BHP are targeting 50 per cent and 30 per cent reductions in that timeframe respectively.
In the case of Australian iron ore production, the mega-scale and complexity of mining and processing operations magnifies the challenge of achieving net-zero production.
It is improbable that a single solution will reduce or prevent all emissions at once.
Only a highly sophisticated approach to managing new relationships, processes and decarbonisation technology can remove the risk of the massive capital investment required to go green.
Integrated Remote Operations Centres (IROCs) are the next frontier in mining.
IROCs are a nerve centre from which all operational decisions relating to mining, processing and logistics across the value chain are made and directed.
The role of IROCs is indispensable in delivering mining’s formidable decarbonisation goals.
The unique configuration of each mine, such as remaining mine life, depth, pit design and availability of green energy sources, means there will be multiple approaches to decarbonisation across the industry.
Standard operating models will become redundant.
Future IROCs will need to manage a network of mines that are using a multitude of mining methods, equipment and energy sources. This will require:
- Collaboration up and down the value chain: Integrated external energy suppliers, technology providers and better response to the demands of metals producers as they decarbonise.
- Continuous improvement to optimize performance and energy efficiency: Reductions in energy consumption, optimised efficiency and improve recovery rates.
- Supporting introduction of new technologies: New technologies that replace diesel, reduce energy, improve mining selectivity or enable transition to renewable energy will be introduced. Each introduction has the potential to change the dynamics of the value chain, create new bottlenecks and require new operating procedures.
- Electrification and renewable energy sources: Manage operations with more constraints and volatility in energy supply, collaborate more closely with grid operators and optimize for carbon.
Australia's iron ore industry has already seen the benefits of existing IROCs, such as:
- Enhanced safety by reducing personnel onsite
- Increased productivity and more predictable outcomes
- Standardisation as a way of managing complex operations
- Optimised quality and throughput and match to market demand
- Support for operationalisation of autonomous technology
- Attracting talent
If the mining industry is to successfully weather the challenges of decarbonisation, IROCs will have to be able to handle increased operational complexity with collaborative, optimised decision-making.