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Mining into the future: Could electrified mines become a reality in B.C.?

Image of an open pit mine
This year brought many challenges for the mining industry, pushing some to explore electrifying their operations as a way to save.

Industrial customers get help navigating challenging year

Recently, we introduced you to Daman Kochhar and Ida Keung, our team of Regional Energy Managers. They help our smaller industrial customers using under four gigawatt hours of electricity a year to find ways of reducing their energy usage further by determining their eligibility for programs and incentives and then navigating them through the process.

Larger industrial customers are assigned their own BC Hydro Key Account Manager (KAM), who works closely with them, often on longer-term projects involving new construction or transformation.

Gord Gray is a Senior Key Account Manager and Sector Lead for our Mining and Mid-Industrial customers – such as cannabis and food and beverage producers, agricultural and manufacturing. Gord's main focus is mining and for him, 2020 has been a pretty interesting year.

COVID vs. commodities

"When COVID hit, everybody was affected significantly," says Gord. "While I don't think anybody shut down, it definitely curtailed the number of people onsite, and that led to some reduction in load. But it was impressive how quickly the mines put measures in place and pretty much returned to normal production by June."

"Right at the beginning, we brought in relief measures for pretty much all our customers. There was an offer to provide relief for billing demand as well as billing deferral. Quite a few mines signed up."

But those challenges were fairly quickly offset by the rise in commodities prices as the market came back at the beginning of the summer: "Gold, copper – and even metallurgical coal – did very well."

Electrified mines are becoming a reality

However, COVID wasn't the only thing mines were thinking about in 2020. Back in 2019, the electrification of mines was a fairly novel concept. Fast forward to 2020: volatile markets and global politics, the pandemic, and BC carbon taxes among the highest in the world encouraged many mines to start seriously exploring how they could electrify their operations.

"Everybody has been talking about electrification as the most likely scenario for future mines," says Gord. "It's more challenging for open pit mines, given they have so many energy-hungry vehicles, but it is possible."

"The massive haul trucks that carry hundreds of tons of rock around a mine are powered by a huge diesel engine that acts like a generator to power an electric motor on each wheel. If there's a haul route from say, the pit to the mill, and you're driving the truck uphill for three kilometres carrying 200 tons of ore, then you're burning a lot of fuel. And if the mine is open for five years with multiple trucks hauling every day, imagine how much that costs and how much carbon it produces."

"If you're going to be using the same route for the life of the mine and you have the electrical capacity, you can extend your grid and build a trolley wire – much like the trolley bus system in downtown Vancouver. You fit a mast to the truck that connects to the electric line overhead so you can run the wheel motors directly with electricity, shutting off the diesel engine. It's much cheaper and the trucks can also get up the hill faster, so you can haul more loads."

"This is a big investment upfront and can take 2-3 years for payback, but if your mine plan is solid, it's a great way to reduce overall costs and carbon emissions. Many of the mines are looking into this as a potential application, with one of them aiming to be up and running by the end of 2021."

Looking ahead to next year, Gord and his team are busy working to try and help facilitate broader electrification, along with continuing to initiate energy reduction projects.

Whether or not your business has thought about electrification already, Gord's advice is simple: "Look around your facility and ask yourself 'Where might electrification work for me? Where are the opportunities?' Talk to your KAM or one of our Regional Energy Managers about it – we're here to help."

Get the latest COVID-19 advice for your business

Make sure your team and your business are benefitting from the latest BC Government advice on COVID-19, including their Support for Businesses information.