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Editorial comment

The mining industry is poised for change, from skyrocketing demand and exploration, to a rapidly dwindling workforce and the proliferation of autonomous and AI-powered technologies. As the industry grapples with these existing challenges and opportunities, a new one is bubbling to the surface: electrification.

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The need for electrification arises out of an interesting problem. Like every other industry, mining is looking to reduce emissions substantially. However, the mining industry is also looking to exponentially grow its output to enable – of all things – the energy transition. For example, global refined copper demand is expected to nearly double from 2021 to 2035.1

I believe electrification will play a key role in the future of mining – not alone, but in combination with autonomy. There are powerful synergies between these technologies that have the potential to make the industry safer, more productive, and more sustainable. In my conversations with mining companies, they understand the need for autonomy, but many are struggling to implement electrification. Now is the time to begin strategising; here is what the industry needs to know.

Why the buzz?

It is still very early for electric heavy vehicles, but the interest is there; the off-road electrification market is expected to hit US$2.23 billion by 2028.2 Several factors make electric vehicles appealing to mining companies.

  • Reduced emissions: First and foremost, electrification will play a critical role in shrinking mining’s carbon footprint. Climate change is ranked a top concern for mining companies,3 and McKinsey estimates that fully renewable power sources could reduce a mine’s carbon footprint by 60 – 80%.4 This enables companies to meet ESG or carbon neutrality goals and, in some countries, avoid regulatory wrist slaps for excessive emissions.
  • Lower costs: Electric vehicles are 40 – 60% less expensive to operate than internal combustion vehicles,5 and operators can save in other ways too. For example, ventilation systems for underground mines can comprise as much as 30 – 40% of operating costs,6 while electric vehicles can reduce or eliminate the need for them.
  • Operational improvements: Electric vehicles operate more efficiently, with a 70 – 75% higher tank-to-wheel energy efficiency to reduce fuel consumption.7

How do we flip the switch?

Of course, this transition will not happen overnight. The size of these vehicles alone presents a significant challenge; it is easier to create a battery large enough to power an electric car than a 400 t electric haul truck. There are also steep upfront costs, partly because companies need to establish charging infrastructure. Retrofitting vehicles – which, on its own, is a way to upcycle assets – can address some of these challenges by leveraging existing vehicles to reduce upfront costs. At SafeAI, we have started experimenting with this solution, combining it with autonomy; our first vehicle was for a construction use case and our next will be for mining, with a 90 – 100 t haul truck.

The transition will take time, but we will see more electrification pilots – in many cases, combined with autonomy. These projects will answer critical questions and establish a blueprint for how the industry can establish more innovative, sustainable, and productive operations.

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