Further advances in battery technology are expected as new options come to market and new economies of scale are achieved, says independent consulting engineers and scientists SRK Consulting.
These advances are likely to create the potential to reduce costs and environmental impact while providing a disruptive force as price volatility persists.
SRK partner and principal consultant Andrew van Zyl says new energy-storage solutions, including batteries – potentially fed by renewable power-based microgrids – hold much promise for African mining operations.
“They could not only reduce costs but also avoid the need to transport and burn fossil fuels. The benefits to the mine could extend beyond the surface and process plant infrastructure, transitioning into the mining fleet, which could become battery-powered.”
Van Zyl tells Mining Weekly that a renewables-based solution offers a significant advantage in terms of mine-community collaboration as traditional diesel-based power used by many remote mines, in addition to carrying significant operational costs, is unaffordable for surrounding communities, who cannot operate without subsidised fuel.
Longer-term renewables-based power generation presents a realistic option for local roll-out, provided that the initial developmental capital is made available.
“This electricity could be affordable for local communities and the power generation is more likely to continue long after the mine has closed. Such a vital resource could support livelihood diversification in the community and reduce its dependence on the mine,” Van Zyl states.
SRK senior social scientist Jessica Edwards adds that local renewable-energy projects that are initially supported by the mine could also attract investment from the local community or even the mineworkers, potentially creating a sustainable livelihood beyond the life of the mine.
This could be further enhanced if the mine’s renewable-energy demand is sufficient enough to make the technology more affordable.
“Community trusts can be established in mining communities, which can facilitate investment in initiatives geared towards the generation of revenue during the social transition beyond mine closure,” Edwards says.
Notably, Africa has leap-frogged technologies before – such as the rapid movement to cellphone use before traditional telephone cable networks were well established – says SRK principal consultant and social scientist Lisl Fair.
She suggests that, owing to the continent’s energy poverty, localised renewable-energy systems present a similar opportunity for mining activities and mine community development as there is often a lack of power infrastructure or only intermittent availability of electricity.
With many African countries not well served by a national power grid, the attractiveness of renewable power and battery storage is multiplied. New technology is likely to be applied in areas of mining potential that have no existing power supply, says SRK partner and principal mining engineer Marcin Wertz.
Van Zyl highlights that it is uncertain which commodities will be most in demand in the race to develop the new battery technologies in question. “Among the key commodities are vanadium, cobalt, platinum and lithium in energy storage – but it will still take time for the most successful options to develop critical mass.”
He believes that it is going to remain unpredictable, especially because a sustained price rise in one commodity quickly results in the market exploring substitutes, citing the recent volatility in the cobalt price as an example of this phenomenon.
“A rapid rise in price leads to further research on alternative battery technology that may require smaller volumes of the cobalt mineral or substitute technology. Sudden increases in demand for a metal result in high prices and new sources of supply – and can lead to supply exceeding demand, as collusion is illegal and generally impractical,” Van Zyl elaborates.
Wertz notes the increase in the number of technical studies pertaining to potential cobalt projects in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo where SRK is involved. If these projects come to fruition, this could lead to additional volumes in the market, perhaps even to a surplus, he states.
“Such a surplus is always a threat to the profitability of any particular commodity; similarly, if a high price is sustained over a period for long enough, the risk of substitution is also high,” he concludes.