Using solar energy to power mining in Australia was once a pipedream, but now the transition from fossil fuels to renewables in the sector is well and truly underway, write Michael Corio and Aaron Zadeh from Array Technologies.

Until recently, the words heavy industry and solar power never would have been uttered together, but from our vantage point at Array Technologies, as a solar tracker manufacturer, we’re witnessing a sea change with the mining and metals sector switching in earnest away from fossil fuels to renewable energy for their operations.

This change is vital to overhaul global energy production and storage, especially because solar panels, wind turbines and batteries rely on the production of critical minerals.

The growth in renewables and attendant drop in costs during the past decade means mega solar projects are now feasible for power uses with extreme demand, such as mining. Some new solar projects are now sized in gigawatts, making decarbonisation a reality for many hard-to-abate sectors.

Just as Australia is rich with minerals vital to the global economy, the nation is also rich with renewable resources to power mines: solar (7GW), wind (16GW) and hydropower (7.8GW).

Australia is the veritable Saudi Arabia of renewable power, and it’s never been more exciting to be in the solar power industry here as lower costs are propelling the energy transition. In the past, solar power was considered too expensive for baseload generation and more of a nice-to-have option.

It’s now cost competitive or cheaper than other forms of power generation, and an environmentally friendly alternative to the continued reliance on fossil fuels. This is especially true for onsite power requirements of heavy industries.

We recall how impressive it was back in the mid-2000s when the then two largest solar power projects in the US came online: the US Air Force’s Nellis Solar Power Plant in Nevada, with nearly 15MW of capacity, and the Alamosa Photovoltaic Power Plant in Colorado, with 7.7MW of capacity. Contrast those now relatively small projects with the magnitude of the Bhadla Solar Park in India, which came online in 2021 with 2.25GW of capacity.

Providing onsite solar power for energy-intensive operations such as mining would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant past. Now, solar power is replacing diesel-fuelled power at mines in Australia. This trend eliminates greenhouse gas emissions onsite and the need to transport fuel long distances to remote sites, where mines are typically located.

Reducing transportation and operational emissions in the mining sector is a key objective of global climate action, especially because mining provides resources for the energy transition, such as critical minerals used in battery storage. Australian mines produce lithium, cobalt and other critical minerals.

Hurdles remain, but solutions abound

While big progress is being made, it doesn’t mean serving the mining sector with solar energy is not without challenges. The remote locations of mine sites present extreme weather conditions, including swings from high to low temperatures, strong winds and even cyclones.

Additionally, the panels are very large in solar arrays that provide gigawatts of power. To address this, Array Technologies has designed clamps for single-axis trackers to handle increased weight and ensure wind resistance.

Given mines are often located off the grid, battery storage is also a requirement. The parallel advances in solar and battery technologies enable a shift for mining from diesel power to renewable electricity.

At Array Technologies, we’ve gained experience during the past 30 years in figuring out how to install solar trackers in a variety of weather conditions, terrains and soil conditions – whether rocky or soft clay – and we’re up to the job of engineering for sites far from transmission systems.

The Array Tech Research Center, in the sunny US Southwest, seeks to continuously improve upon and create new designs. The Array DuraTrack HZ v3 single-axis tracker rotates throughout the day to align solar panels at the optimal angle for maximum power production at any given time.

Lower PV costs

Utility-scale solar is becoming economically advantaged, as evidenced by the widespread adoption across commercial and industrial sectors, including an increasing number of corporate power purchase agreements, and even the advent of solar-powered steel mills.

Most of the cost decline in utility-scale solar projects is attributed to the precipitous drop in solar module prices. In a recent report on PV systems costs, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates module prices fell 85 per cent during the past decade. The current cost of a utility-scale PV system is about $1/watt, compared to $2.50/watt for the module cost alone a decade ago, according to NREL.

The cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaics in Australia is lower than in the US, at US$1.061 and US$1.101, respectively, as of 2020, according to Statista.

Global reach

Outside of Australia, Array Technologies sees similar trends through its sales and operations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US, where the company is headquartered. We’ve grown to serve more than 1000 solar power projects worldwide.

The renewable energy transition is finally in full swing and we expect solar power to remain at the forefront of this megatrend for the next century. The transformation of energy is now a steady multigenerational movement.