Construction begins on mining giant BHP’s first off-grid solar-storage project

By Cameron Murray
Solar PV paired with battery storage at another mining site in Australia. Image: Aggreko.

Construction has started on BHP’s “first off-grid large-scale renewable energy project”, totalling 38 MW of solar power and a 10.1MW/5.4 MWh battery energy storage system (BESS), at two nickel mines in Western Australia which supply Tesla for use in electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

The Northern Goldfields Solar Project will comprise a 27.4 MW solar farm at Mt Keith and a 10.7 MW solar farm with the BESS at nearby Leinster. It will help replace power currently supplied by diesel and gas and reduce scope 2 emissions at the two mines by 12%, or 54,000 tonnes of CO2e, and will start generating solar power in November. 

This will bolster BHP’s journey to becoming net zero but also shore up the energy-intensive mines’ energy supply and reduce costs for transporting and burning diesel, and the group is one of many mining firms launching such projects in Australia and elsewhere. 

BHP is investing AU$73m (US$52m) in the project which is being built and operated by global renewables group TransAlta Renewables, which has contracted German company Juwi for engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) duties. 

The sites will supply electricity to BHP’s mines under a power purchase agreement (PPA) with TransAlta which runs to 2038, and the two parties have agreed to identify potential sites for 40-50 MW of wind generation which would further reduce scope 2 emissions at the mines by 30%. 

BHP Nickel West Asset President Jessica Farrell noted that it is BHP’s “first off-grid large-scale renewable energy project across our global operations,” and it also marks TransAlta’s first renewable energy project in Australia.

Energy company EDL says there is about 2 GW of off-grid energy demand in Australia, and that around $2.5bn of investment will be needed to meet half of this with renewables.

The country has been a hotbed of such projects recently.

Last week IGO Limited announced that solar-plus-storage would be installed at its Nova copper-cobalt-nickel mine at Fraser Range allowing the site to temporarily operate on 100% renewable energy. Rio Tinto announced plans to install a 4MW solar and 4MWh BESS at its Weipa bauxite mine in September, with construction expected to begin later this year. 

The group’s solar solar-wind-storage system totalling 28.25 MW, of which 8.25 MW is storage, at its QMM ilmenite mine in Madagascar is further along with solar operations expected to begin in Q2 2022 and wind by the end of the year. It should eventually provide 60% of the mine’s electricity.

Elsewhere in Africa, equipment manufacturer Caterpillar recently supplied 7.5MW of battery storage to the microgrid powering the Kibali gold mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In April last year, an off-grid hybrid energy system at gold mine Fekola, Mali, went online with 30MW of solar PV and a 17MW/15.4MWh BESS. Across the Atlantic, reported last week that technology group Wärtsilä had won a contract to provide the South American nation Suriname’s first-ever utility-scale energy storage system, a 7.8MW/7.8MWh BESS to an unnamed gold mine.

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