Jan 2020

Solar for mining operations

Solar PV Microgrids for Mining: cost-cutting meets sustainability

The mining sector is one of the most important economic contributors to the African economy. However, mining is also facing several challenges – particularly with regards to sustainability and cost-saving. Mining operations are increasingly turning to solar PV microgrids as a reliable and sustainable alternative energy option.

Cost-cutting competitiveness

A 2019 Mckinsey review on measures to invigorate the South African mining industry identified cost-cutting competitiveness as a key factor. As an energy-intensive industry with a projected increase in energy consumption of 36% by 2035, the mining sector is looking to renewable energy, and particularly solar, as a significant cost-saving solution. This is evident in the agenda set for the 2020 Investing in Africa Mining Indaba taking place in Cape Town at the beginning of February, where industry experts will lead the conversation on the economic and societal benefits of renewable energy in mining.

A shift in industry thinking

proactive mitigation of ESG risks creates long term shareholder value.

Speaking to Engineering News & Mining Weekly Tom Quinn, an organiser of Mining Indaba, emphasised that:

‘It is now absolutely necessary for mining companies to have ongoing engagement with their investors and with the communities in which they operate in order to mitigate the risk of investor or community backlash from a lack of sustainable practices.’

This shift in industry thinking is aided by the economic benefits associated with using renewables such as solar PV microgrids to supplement more traditional energy sources. It is now widely accepted that maintaining a Triple Bottom Line is key to responsible investment. IFC’s Global Head of Mining Namrata Thaper advises that:

‘[E]xperience has shown that proactive mitigation of ESG risks creates long term shareholder value. This value is created by ensuring alignment between stakeholders and thereby reducing the likelihood of disagreements between stakeholders, which can lead to cancellation of concessions by government, labour unrest and strikes, community blocking or stopping of operations and more which are all events that can negatively impact financial performance…’

Renewable trends

‘The most advanced options… are hybrid systems that integrate solar, wind and batteries with diesel, gas or heavy fuel oil generators, without compromising reliability or power quality.’

For the mining industry, who rely heavily on consistent, uninterrupted power, the key energy trends to watch in 2020 are hybrid power, advances in renewables technology, variable power usage, intelligent seamless integration and meaningful cost savings.

Climate change, loadshedding and the fluctuating diesel price

However it is not just Triple Bottom Line reporting that is pushing mining companies to seek renewable energy solutions. Threats to productivity in the southern African region include unplanned breakdowns at state-run electricity utility Eskom, the fluctuating diesel price and supply disruption risks in the SADC region. The reliability of solar PV microgrids can mitigate these risks significantly.

On a global scale interruptions to energy production as a result of violent weather conditions caused by climate change has resulted in a growing shift to renewable energy. In response to this new challenge, businesses are focused on ramping up energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. Spencer Glendon, a senior fellow at Woods Hole Research Center cautions that climate change may be altering the economics of long-term infrastructure investment. It is crucial to ensure that one’s power supply is independent of at risk utility plants.

Solar PV microgrids offer a hybrid solution to these obstacles. In cases of remote locations, weak grid supply and reliance on diesel, there is an optimal business case for mines to use a solar PV microgrid. This typically combines a backup generator with batteries and solar to ensure a seamless transition and no interruption of power.

Positive outlook for solar PV globally and locally

‘the world’s total renewables-based power capacity will grow by 50% between 2019 and 2024’

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) 2019 renewable energy market forecast for solar PV states that ‘the world’s total renewables-based power capacity will grow by 50% between 2019 and 2024’. Thus as there is a global transition to a varied renewable power sources the southern African region will find itself at a competitive advantage due to its strong irradiance levels (South Africa average more than 2 500 hours of sunshine per year). As a result of falling costs of solar PV and batteries worldwide, microgrids are now accepted as a reliable and cost-effective solution for industrial power generation.

The added benefits of third party financing

Financed solutions allows mining facilities to achieve immediate savings with no initial capex outlay. A solar Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) enables businesses to pay off and maintain their own solar energy systems at no upfront costs, while enjoying the immediate benefit of cost savings. Solar PV microgrids are increasingly the option of choice when looking to adopt a reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy solution.

Solar Power Systems - Alrode Brewery in Alberton - industrial solar power system

AB InBev bolster breweries with 8.7 MW renewable energy from SOLA

Renewable energy solutions are a quick and efficient way for South Africa to reduce energy demand on Eskom’s constrained grid, and solutions are being supported by businesses who see the value of embedded electricity solutions for their supply chains. 

This is according to Chris Haw, Chairperson of the SOLA Group, who in 2018 signed seven multi-tiered Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) with AB InBev Africa that are seeing large solar power plants built across seven major breweries in South Africa.

The Power Purchase Agreements will total around 8.7 MW DC capacity. Of this, 2.6 MW have already reached practical completion with the remaining projects in advanced stages of construction.

“Not only is solar a viable and cost-effective option for us, it aligns to our global sustainability strategy, which entails going 100% renewable by 2025,” says Taryn Rosekilly, Vice President of Procurement and Sustainability at SAB and AB InBev Africa.

ABin Bev Breweries will now be powered with solar energy

The bold step taken by AB InBev Africa highlights the private sector’s strong drive towards reducing carbon emissions and procuring renewable energy solutions.

Gugulethu Nogaya, the Renewable Energy Procurement Manager at AB InBev Africa explains that “procuring renewable energy is part of our sustainability objectives set at a global level. Our global renewable energy commitment is to ensure that 50% of our purchased electricity will come from renewable energy sources by 2020, and 100% by 2025”. 

Nogaya points out that the company has achieved its 50 % target ahead of schedule. “We are currently on track to achieve our 100 % target, with the PPA being an instrumental first step in ensuring our African business is on track to achieve the 2025 ambition.”  

Nogaya adds that “in order to meet the AB InBev 100 % target in South Africa, it will require solar renewable energy facilities to the total of 191 MW.” 

Jonathan Skeen, Gauteng MD and Gugulethu Nogaya, Renewable Energy Procurement Manager, at the launch of AB InBev's renewable electricity and electric truck launch

According to the International Energy Agency, distributed solar PV systems in homes and Commercial and Industrial buildings have almost tripled since 2014. It predicts that distributed energy will grow as much as onshore wind by 2024, making up half of all new solar PV capacity. 

This is likely due to the flexibility and affordability of PV plants compared to other forms of energy generation. The rollout of large-scale solar PV systems takes much less time than other generation technologies. 

There is also a greater demand and expectation that businesses take more responsibility for the way in which they operate. Providing renewable energy allows businesses to meet their sustainability targets whilst taking pressure off of Eskom’s load.

The PPA between AB InBev Africa and the SOLA Group is allowing solar PV to be rolled out without AB InBev incurring capital costs. Instead, the company will purchase its power requirement directly from SOLA, with the remainder coming from Eskom and local municipalities. 

In 2019, SOLA secured R400 M with partners from African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM) and Nedbank in order to fund projects such as the AB InBev Africa solar facilities.

“Embedded electricity generation – particularly solar PV – can quickly address Eskom’s supply shortfall,” states Haw. “For large Commercial and Industrial companies, procuring renewable power enables saving costs whilst also reducing their carbon footprints.” 

The solar PV plants for AB InBev Africa span across seven different sites in various areas of the country, including the Western Cape, Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. 

“Combined, the plants will consist of over 23 000 solar panels. The construction of the projects will create 175 jobs, in addition to SOLA’s 56 permanent positions,” points out Haw. 

AB InBev Africa is one of the largest industrial business in South Africa, making the conversion of their sites to solar significant. “The PV systems will produce close to 14 GWh of electricity per year – the equivalent of taking over 2000 cars off the roads. This is exactly the type of clean energy procurement that we need to see more companies committing to,” concludes Haw. 

SOLA starts 2020 by reaching 100 GWh target

SOLA has officially met its goal to generate over 100 000 000 kWh of clean energy by 2020 –  with a day to spare. 

The group set the target to reach 100 GWh of clean energy by 2020 as a goal when its C&I division started in 2014. And with just one day to spare, the target was met on 30 December 2019. 

100 000 000 kWh of clean energy in South Africa, where the carbon factor is quite high because of a coal-based electricity system, equates to saving around 92 590 tons of carbon emissions equivalents (CO2eq). This amount of CO2eq can be likened to taking 20 000 cars off the roads for a year, or avoiding 400 million litres of petrol, or powering 11 000 middle-class houses for a year, or planting 1.5 million trees, 10 years ago.

With wildfires currently raging across Australia, people dying of pollution-related causes in Mpumalanga, and our own Eskom struggling to keep the lights on, it is important to unpack the significance of this goal: we need to bolster the production of clean energy globally. And whilst 100 GWh is just a fraction of South Africa’s overall energy production, it is an important start in painting a better future for the country, and perhaps even the continent.