A cluster of major Canadian mines are now well on the way to full electrification. Owned mainly by global majors, leaning heavily on Canadian technology and expertise, they’re the new face of international deep mining: cleaner, safer and more profitable
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Canada’s mining sector, one of the country’s oldest industries, is emerging as one of the brightest growth spots in the nation’s zero-emissions future, having developed a cluster of mines and mining expertise that is now leading the world in underground electrification.
While the mines themselves are mostly owned by global majors — principally Glencore, Vale and Newmont — every piece of the Canadian mining value chain, from manufacturers and engineers to miners and energy producers, is playing a key role. In an industry valued at $105 billion annually, responsible for 620,000 jobs, according to the Mining Association of Canada, that’s welcome news. It means Canada is well positioned at a time when digging deep around the world is only getting trickier and many experts say the way forward is with battery electric machinery.
“Canada is leading the way in electrification and deep mines have got no choice,” says Stuart Lister, vice-president of marketing and communications at MacLean Engineering, an underground equipment maker based in Collingwood, Ont. “If [mining companies] want to access this ore thousands of feet down they have to go with an electric fleet.”
Thousands of metres below ground, things start to get complicated: temperatures soar to between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius, there are enormous distances to move goods, machinery and people in tight spaces, and air quality becomes a matter of life and death.
Historically these issues have made deep mining projects costly in health, safety and economics, even rendering many sites in Canada and around the world unviable. Turns out, electrification can help.
Onaping Depth project
In the middle of a thick forest just outside of Sudbury, a large area with dusty grounds, gravel roads and shafts cut a jagged break through the foliage. This is the Onaping Depth project — a Glencore-owned, all-electric deep mine operation that will be one of the first of its kind worldwide.
Onaping Depth is built near an already existing site — the Craig mine — and will extend the nickel mining operation an additional 1,400 metres underground. The development is earmarked to cost US$700 million with first electric vehicle procurement set to start in just a few months time.
The product list for mining EVs is extensive: drilling and blasting equipment, bolters, borers, scoops, haulers, personnel carriers, cement throwers and anything else miners may need. Competition in the market, too, continues to rise. In Canada, MacLean is joined by Miller Technology, Kovatera and FVT Technologies. Their main international competitors are Sandvik, Epiroc and Normet. All, to varying degrees, are supplying the transitioning national and global market, with many offering custom-made solutions to meet customer needs.
And the response from the industry to their new electric fleets or individual machines has been overwhelmingly positive, say Maclean. Ever more rigorous testing, developing technologies and user education demonstrates BEV mining equipment performs just as well, if not better, than diesel with one big added bonus: savings.
With Onaping Depth, the difference is game-changing. Using traditional diesel equipment, it simply wouldn’t be feasible. For years, Glencore ran engineering analyses based on diesel but the result was always the same: there was too much overhead needed to power and build complex ventilation systems. But once the company began to consider using EVs, the math made it simple: 44 per cent savings for ventilation, 30 per cent savings for cooling equipment and a 44 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In late 2017, the project was approved.
As the mine moves closer to its 2023 opening date, the rest of Canada’s mining community is taking close note of the developments and a cue from the strong EV-positive signal Glencore is putting out. Luckily, Glencore is taking this critical step into an all-EV future in the right country for all things electric mines.
The advent of electrification in mining equipment is being seized upon as an avenue to achieve greater depths for less cost and more reward and has positioned Canada as a leader in electrified mines worldwide.
“We’re big believers in battery technology. We feel it’s the way to go,” says Robert Rennie, president of MEDATech Engineering Services, a mining engineering services firm, also in Collingwood. “The equipment is becoming more competitive with diesel every day…[miners] don’t have a choice because the ore bodies are getting deeper and hotter.”
As Glencore’s example at Onaping shows, diesel machines have a finite depth they are able to work at before conditions become too hot to handle and the cost of appropriately ventilating outweighs the worth of what is being mined. Electric machines offer a way around the costly ventilation issue, making drilling down still profitable.
“Canada is really ground zero. We’ve got a proven solution for BEV that’s already seeing widespread adoption,” says Patrick Marshall, MacLean Engineering’s vice-president of product management. “It’s based on a lot of the work that’s happening in Northern Ontario, the government incentives helped it to get off the ground and the application is just extremely suitable here for some of the challenges of Canadian hard rock mining.”
While Onaping Depth is still coming, Canada has several flagship mines already fully or partially electrified — including the Borden gold mine (Newmont), the Lake Macassa gold mine (Kirkland Lake Gold), along with several run by Vale. These mines, considered the backbone of Canada’s mining industry, are all located in Northern Ontario (predominantly around Sudbury) and Manitoba, generate billions of dollars every year and employ thousands of workers.
Under the ground experience
“We are continuing to define, ‘how will we embed [BEVs] in our future mines or existing mines?’,” says Luke Mahony, Global Head of Geology, Mine Engineering, Geotechnical and Technology & Innovation at Vale Base Metals in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “It’s quite exciting. We are planning what a full transition to electric really looks like.”
Vale currently operates 19 electric mining machines in Ontario — everything from personnel haulers to loaders and trucks — and is aiming to double that number over the next two years. It’s an ambitious goal, but the company is committed to slowly and steadily going electric. It believes it is what makes sense for the future of the mining industry from a health, economic and sustainability point of view.
“Right now we’re trialing and displacing individual vehicles,” says Mahony. “It’s not until you get a full fleet displacement that you get the full economic benefits or value benefits of an electric fleet.”
And the full benefits are enticing — ranging from millions of dollars per year saved on fuel costs and ventilation systems to a massive decrease in exposure to carcinogenic exhaust fumes underground. On top of that, the machines themselves run at up to 30 per cent increased efficiency.
But, like all good things, electric mining equipment comes at a cost.
“You have to look at it like when you are buying battery electric, you are buying your fuel up front,” says Rennie. “You’re talking about $50 million of equipment in diesel and you’ve got to look at double to get an electric fleet. It’s a significant increase in the capital expenditure.”
By all accounts though the premium is worth it.
“The feedback from the operators is that they notice and appreciate the reduction of noise and the vibrations compared to what that they normally get from a diesel machine; it’s very advantageous to jump on an electric machine,” says Mahony.
It’s a sentiment echoed in other mines, with John Mullally, Newmont’s executive for sustainability, North America stating in a 2019 Ernst & Young report about workers at Newmont’s all-electric Borden mine: “Something like 90 per cent said that they would not want to go back and work in a traditional underground mine alongside diesel engines.”
Speeding up the transition
In Canada, it’s up to individual mining companies to decide to pivot to electric or not. Aside from implementing a carbon tax, current federal incentives are modest — Natural Resources Canada’s Clean Growth Program funds demonstration projects and R&D, and there is an accelerated tax write-off for electric mining vehicles, introduced earlier this year.
Along with the main financial motivators for mining companies — long-run cost savings, health benefits and the ability to access more minerals and metals deeper underground — the use of EVs can have significant social upside. This is particularly true, Lister notes, in regards to relationships with First Nations and Indigenous communities that host many mining operations and supply much of the labour force. As such, industry stakeholders say more needs to be done to help maintain Canada’s current strong position.
“The government needs to step in — as much as I hate having to say that,” says Rennie. “The Europeans are taking it way more seriously than North Americans are and they are doing it.”
Europe’s commitments to EV adoption and ICE discontinuance are, by default, propelling their mining industries into the age of electrification alongside the rest of the industries. In Canada the movement is entirely company-driven rather than part of a national co-ordinated policy.
“Mining is already leading the way,” says Lister. “We want to see those policies matching what is already going underground, which is Canada being leaders in the electric mining space.”
Onwards and downwards
As word-of-mouth between companies continues to spread the good word about electrified mining equipment, and the number of workers demanding better health conditions grows, the more Canadian mines will be compelled to transition to electric.
It may be a change that comes with steep learning curves, hiccups and initial costs, but all the forecasts and the experience of those who have already dipped their toes in the electrification pool point to long-term gains.
The early leaders say the way forward is for mining companies to start designing mines with an eye to electric and looking for ways to integrate the infrastructure requirements and processes of each. Mines built with the understanding that a new generation of vehicles — either electric or autonomous — will be in use will be the first to see the full suite of benefits that come from going all-electric.
“It’s all about looking at the whole ecosystem and how you introduce it. It’s not so much replacing a diesel with an electric vehicle,” says Mahony. “It’s changing that mindset of transitioning from a diesel to electric and how do you really embed this in both the mine design and mining practices.”