Renewables and Returning Land Use

It comes as no surprise that there is an intrinsic link between the transition to renewable energy sources and the mining industry.   The energy transition increases reliance on metals like copper for solar photovoltaic cells and distributed transmission infrastructure, as well as minerals required for energy storage like lithium, graphite, and cobalt[1].  As more mining companies commit to net zero emission targets, they are also exploring renewable energy sources as a viable option for new mine sites to achieve emission targets, while decreasing costs and increasing reliability.

But what if renewable energy options were explored not just for new mine sites, but as potential value-added closure visions?

Equivalent Land Closure Vision

Mining operations commonly agree to a closure vision that requires the reclaimed land at closure to provide similar ecological function to that prior to disturbance.  The monitoring and evaluation required to demonstrate post-reclamation equivalency can translate into a prolonged (and frequently stalled) process as the mine transitions operations to closure, and eventual relinquishment certification.  So, why not explore renewable energy projects to maximize the land use after mineral extraction is complete, but before relinquishment is achieved?

Available Land and Existing Infrastructure

Underutilized post-closure, pre-relinquishment mine lands can be optimal locations for renewable projects like solar arrays or wind turbines.  Frequently, the available land spans hundreds of acres and already has similar permitting and zoning.  Existing mine pits or underground quarries can be repurposed as reservoirs for pumped storage projects, a form of hydroelectric energy storage where water reservoirs at difference elevations are used to generate power.  Through their construction and operation, mines build access to critical infrastructure like access roads, electrical transmission lines, and support structures like buildings and camps. This existing infrastructure could be repurposed to support the new renewable energy installation.

Local Benefits

One of the biggest socioeconomic impacts of mine closure is the resulting loss of jobs for local communities. In this scenario, a closure vision that returns mine disturbed lands to its pre-disturbance state might not be the highest value use for the surrounding communities.  New renewable energy installations can provide an alternative source of construction and operation jobs and can support transition from a single employer company town to a diversified economy.  These new installations may also result in increased tax income for the local municipality.

Returning Land Use Project Examples

As mining companies look to meet their emission commitments, they may find their own closed sites to be an asset for renewable energy options.  Leveraging post-closure mine lands for renewable energy sources isn’t a new concept; there are several promising project examples demonstrating the potential of this returning land use option, including:

  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency Re-Powering initiative [2] shares several examples of success stories where legacy mine sites have been transitioned to value added projects like the Summitville mine in Colorado’s micro hydroelectric plant.
  • Reclaimed land from Teck’s former Sullivan mine in British Columbia now houses their SunMine solar energy facility[3].
  • Genex Power Limited is developing an integrated solar and pumped storage renewable energy hub at Kidston Mine, formally one of the largest open cut gold mines in Queensland[4].

Okane’s Approach

One of the first and most important steps in Okane’s Integrated Mine Closure process is clear identification of closure vision and post-closure land use objectives. The Mining Association of Canada’s (MAC) Towards Sustainable Mining Mine Closure Framework requires MAC members to work with communities to develop the closure plan and help them plan for long-term economic development[6].  Moreover, the Mineral Council of Australia (MCA) advocates for postmining land use planning that balances the needs of the government, community, and traditional custodians, with continuous refinement over the life of mine[7].  Okane’s experienced closure vision facilitators can guide multidisciplinary stakeholder teams though the evaluation of all alternative closure and post closure land use options to achieve the highest long-term value for the environment, surrounding communities and mined land lease holders.

References:

[1] Hund, K. et al (2020) Facility Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition. World Bank Group, Climate Smart Mining Facility. http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/961711588875536384/Minerals-for-Climate-Action-The-Mineral-Intensity-of-the-Clean-Energy-Transition.pdf (Retrieved December 22, 2020)

[2] United States Environmental Protection Agency (2020) Re-Powering America’s Land. https://www.epa.gov/re-powering (Retrieved December 22, 2020).

[3] Teck Resources Limited (January 15, 2020) Teck Announces Purchase of SunMine Solar Energy Facility. https://www.teck.com/news/news-releases/2020/teck-announces-purchase-of-sunmine-solar-energy-facility (Retrieved December 22, 2020).

[4] Genex Power (2020) 250MW Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project (K2-Hydro). https://www.genexpower.com.au/project-details.html (Retrieved December 22, 2020).

[5] Australian Renewable Energy Agency (2020) DeGrussa Solar Project. https://arena.gov.au/projects/degrussa-solar-project/ (Retrieved December 23, 2020).

[6] Mining Association of Canada (2019) Towards Sustainable Mining Mine Closure Framework.  https://mining.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/TSM_Mine_Closure_Framework.pdf (Retrieved December 22, 2020).

[7] Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) (2018). Rehabilitation and Closure Planning Throughout the Mine Life. https://minerals.org.au/news/mine-rehabilitation-closure-and-planning-brochure-2018 (Retrieved December 22, 2020).