“MAY THE FORCES BE WITH YOU”-- ALTERNATIVE ENERGY’S
POTENTIAL IN MINE SITE SUPPORT
By Kathryn G. Arlen
Successfully harnessing nature’s power has historically emerged as an abiding human interest and evolved into modern necessity. Being “off the grid” (anywhere) presents even greater challenges in our search for providing necessary energy to any remote community, mining or otherwise.
Here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus the world-renowned Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), along with its partners the Alaska Energy Authority and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, focuses on this goal, coordinating researchers and applying results. “We’re a gateway to energy research throughout the University system, but we also do a lot of the work here ourselves,” Director Gwen Holdmann began. “Our mandate is basically to coordinate, to focus first on what the needs are, then have our industry advisory groups help set the research agenda.”
ACEP surveys and promotes a vast array of energy choices, not only the renewable, but the variety of fossil fuels as well, as Holdmann emphasized, “…whatever it takes f or the industries and communities to be successful.” In Alaska many of the most abundant mineral resources are located in remote areas, far distant from the state’s power grid, and mining companies—small and large--obviously must provide their own energy needs. Diesel, effective, storable, and easily transportable, is a popular choice, but its heavy drawback is expense and cost projection. However, combining diesel with wind powered turbines has recently become an increasingly more viable option for some remote areas, perhaps even larger mines with more stable life expectations. “When you have something like wind, the fuel is free. You’re not paying for the wind. The diesel provides the power,” Holdman continued, “But of course you have to have a good wind site to begin with.”
Maximizing wind resource potential is a critical factor for the successful wind-diesel equation while you are still relying on diesel as the base power to make up any difference. Which introduces another challenge: “At one point in time the diesel is providing 50% of the power and the wind provides 50%,” Goldman added, “but the diesel generator still requires fuel just to sit idle.” One of the bigger challenges ACEP is working on right now is “energy storage, other ways to shut off the generator for periods of time. That’s a big part of our research…you don’t want to go around experimenting with shutting off diesel, to see if you can just run off of wind. You want to know that your power quality is good to operate whatever you need for your camp, mine, community, whatever.”
While the wind-diesel power combination offers an intriguing mine-site energy source possibility, it also fosters liabilities, primarily initial cost expenditures—computed in dollars per kilowatt installed, typically $2000 for diesel generators. For a one megawatt project, “You might pay $2 million,” Goldman computed, “But for wind-diesel, it’s more like $5-10,000/kW—much more than paying for diesel. Mining energy needs are high with the expensive initial infrastructure—we’re talking megawatts, not kilowatts. And then, of course, there’s maintenance. But there’s still the fuel cost, because now your fuel is free with the wind power, and we don’t have the fuel cost projection. You may be paying more today, but less tomorrow. It’s still a balancing act,” she stated.
There’s another added advantage for mining operations in terms of “what happens with the future of a carbon tax, taxing structure, something like ‘cap and trade.’ This [type of energy source] can offset those kinds of possibilities because you can sell the credit or use them yourselves as an operation. If you’ve got a carbon-intensive industry, such as mining, wind credit helps defray some of those expenses, “Goldmann concluded. Much of the projected payback depends, of course, on diesel costs: if you believe that expense will rise proportionately enough to justify initial turbine purchasing.
Wind-diesel as a possible mining infrastructure energy source is still a new technology, and, as with all new technologies, can probably look forward to lowering costs with rising demands. As Director Holdmann also emphasized, “We’re definitely seeing cost decreases. And those prices I’ve quoted are from our rural locations, and, of course, would be much cheaper in grid location.”
Although wind-diesel’s practicality may not yet seem immediately evident, “that doesn’t mean it’s not doable—it’s just very site specific”—Holdmann. This alternative energy/fossil fuel partnership at least opens some thought-provoking doors, the tired-yet-true cliché about “thinking outside the box” in the mining industry’s continuing quest for affordable energy sources. ACEP focuses on the whole resource assessment picture, both renewable (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, etc.) and fossil (oil, gas, coal) with its specific emphasis on helping any community, particularly those in remote areas, better utilize what is available to them: how “to do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
Alaska has more fossil and renewable energy resources than any other state, and ACEP has justifiably acquired a worldwide reputation as being a leader in renewable energy applied research. Their website: www.uaf.edu/acep
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Kathryn G. Arlen is a communication consultant and freelance writer in Fairbanks, Alaska, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org