On a remote mine site in the desert of central Western Australia, the winds of change are blowing.

Key points:

  • The 56MW Agnew power system is Australia’s biggest mine site micro-grid, first to have wind turbines
  • There is about 2GW of off-grid power demand in Australia across mining and resource projects
  • Industry estimates billions of dollars will be needed to meet half the demand from clean sources

Along with a solar farm and a battery, five giant wind turbines are powering much of the operations at the Agnew gold project, about 1,000 kilometres north-east of Perth.

It is the first resources project anywhere in Australia to have a wind farm, but it is unlikely to be the last.

What’s more, the mix of renewable energy sources to increasingly meet the needs of mines such as Agnew is set to be replicated across the country.

“It’s been great,” says Stuart Mathews, the executive vice president of Gold Fields, the South African company which owns the Agnew project.

“We commissioned it in May last year and it’s been seamless, actually.

“In optimal conditions we’ve been as high as 80, 90 per cent when the wind is right and the solar is just right.

Economics driving clean choices

Man wearing hard hat and yellow fluoro shirt standing in from of mine pit

Gold Fields’ Stuart Mathews says the company is looking to expand its use of clean energy.(ABC Great Southern: Tom Edwards)

At Agnew and other resources sites around Australia, companies are turning to renewable energy in increasing numbers as they look to cut their costs and carbon emissions.

Giants, including Rio Tinto, BHP and Woodside, have unveiled plans to spend billions of dollars on wind turbines and solar panels as they seek to go green.

And it is a similar story among the mid-sized miners such as Gold Fields.

Mr Mathews said the company had a goal to become the world’s “leading” sustainable gold miner and, at a practical level, the switch towards renewable sources of power was commercially sensible.

He said most of the firm’s operations in Australia were remote and unconnected to electricity grids, meaning they had to be self-sufficient in their power generation.

Until recently, these needs tended to be met by burning millions of litres of diesel fuel and big amounts of gas every day to keep the operations going.

Switching to renewable energy, Mr Mathews said, enabled projects such as Agnew to significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

Crucially, he said renewable sources of power were not linked to volatile prices for diesel and gas, making it easier to budget for energy costs.

Aerial shot looking down at mine with solar farm and gas-fired generator and battery in foreground

Unconnected to any power grid, the Agnew mine has to be self-sufficient for its energy requirements.(Supplied: Gold Fields)

“Actually, it stacks up quite well,” he said.

“We’re actually paying no more for power than we were under a previous arrangement.

“In fact, it’s slightly reduced.

‘Billions’ needed to meet demand

As Australia pivots towards carbon neutrality by 2050, resources companies are eyeing energy as an area where relatively easy gains can be made, according to industry observers.

Engineering firm EDL, which built the Agnew power system, estimates there is about 2 gigawatts of “off-grid” power demand in Australia.

The Brisbane-based company said it would cost about $2.5 billion to meet half of that demand with renewable energy.

In Western Australia alone, almost half of all electricity generated in the state is used outside of power grids by resources companies operating in remote areas.

EDL chief executive James Harman said practically no-one looking at new power supplies in remote places was considering fossil fuel-only options.

“The whole world is transitioning from fossil fuels and the remote energy space is no different,” Mr Harman said.

“We’re talking to a lot of them, and they all come to us looking for energy solutions that maximise the renewable fraction.”

Man wearing hard hat and orange fluoro shirt with wind turbines in background

EDL boss James Harman says demand for renewable energy from mining firms is booming.(ABC Great Southern: Tom Edwards)

Mr Harman said the harsh environmental conditions that tended to make mining in remote areas so challenging were often ideal for renewable energy generation.

He said this meant renewable sources would only become more attractive as technology costs came down in the future.

“It (Gold Fields) could’ve cut a wire to another supply, but it worked out that with the conditions around here — as you can see it’s very wind, very sunny — they’re great conditions for renewables,” he said.

“And Gold Fields took a punt and decided they would back us to develop this micro-grid to continue to supply them in the way they need to be supplied … reliably and sustainably.”

Fossil fuels for ‘some time yet’

Despite the bullish outlook, Mr Harman cautioned that fossil fuels — particularly gas — would still be needed at many remote resources projects for some time yet.

He noted that most mines ran around the clock, meaning they required uninterrupted power supplies.

And while renewable energy was capable of meeting many of those needs, he said fossil fuels would be needed to fill in the gaps until green technology caught up.

“The real challenge is the scale of storage,” Mr Harman said.

“You have to have back-up available when the sun isn’t shining, and the wind isn’t blowing.

“The capital you would have to put in to have renewables available all the time is just too high.

“So, storage is key.”

The comments were echoed by WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston.

Bearded man wearing green shirt

WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston says more than half the state’s energy use is off-grid.(ABC Great Southern: Tom Edwards)

“At the moment, there are limits to how much renewable you can integrate into the grids because there are certain conditions that are not favourable to renewable energy,” Mr Johnston said.

For Mr Johnston, storing excess electricity generation as so-called green hydrogen offered the best chance of boosting renewable generation levels on resource projects.

Moreover, he said Australia – and WA especially – was at the leading edge of changes to remote energy provision, meaning it could export those skills to the world.

“There’s a huge commercial opportunity to integrate renewable energy into that off-grid energy space,” he said.

“It’s probably unique globally, so there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for business here in Western Australia to be part of this renewable energy future.

A renewable energy revolution is powering Australia’s $720bn mining and resources industry
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