BHP targets ‘sustainable nickel’ through green PPA including 18.5 MW solar farm


Throughout the nation, but particularly in Western Australia, the mining sector is looking for cheaper and greener ways to power its processes. Toward that end, BHP Nickel West has extended its power purchase agreement (PPA) with Southern Cross Energy (SCE) until 2038, a deal which will integrate more renewable energy into Nickel West’s Goldfields operations, including an 18.5 MW solar farm and battery storage system. 

The 15-year contract extension between the mining giant and SCE, a subsidiary of Canadian company TransAlta Renewables Inc, replaces the previous contract which was set to expire at the end of 2023. The deal gives SCE the exclusive right to supply electricity to BHP’s Goldfields projects, which given the company’s renewable pedigree, will mean a more sustainable mining process for nickel, a key ingredient in battery storage. 

In fact, since Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced at the company’s 2020 Battery Day that it was switching to high-nickel cathodes there has been much talk about a BHP becoming a key nickel supplier for the electric vehicle and battery storage manufacture. Early in October the Australian Financial Review reported that Tesla was in talks with
BHP over a nickel deal. Musk said in a post-earnings call back in July that he would give a “giant” contract to any miner that could produce nickel in an “environmentally sensitive way.” Enter solar PV.

Of course, the integration of renewable energy generation, including wind, solar, a waste heat steam turbine system, and battery storage, will also aid BHP’s own commitment to a 30% reduction in emissions from 2020 levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. The proposed green energy projects in this renewed contract could see Nickel West’s Scope 2 electricity greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 15% by 2023 on 2020 levels. 

A great support for this reduction will be the construction of an 18.5 MW solar farm and battery energy storage system at Nickel West’s Leinster and Mount Keith operations. “These projects contribute to the first phase of our emissions reduction strategy, as we continue to evaluate plans for additional renewable energy supply to decarbonise our nickel operations,” said Nickel West Asset President Eduard Haegel. 

“We are at the beginning of an energy revolution that will transform our world and materially increase demand for nickel,” continued Haegel. “BHP Nickel West is well placed to provide our nickel units sustainably, and with one of the lowest carbon footprints.” 

Mining the sun

The mining sector is verging on a new boom, that of renewable (and particularly solar) integration. Mines tend to be remote and, certainly in Australia, sun-drenched. This combo means that solar is a very attractive option to mining operations that have so far relied on diesel. 

However, one of the main challenges to solar integration at many mine sites around the world is the tricky nature of mine life expectancy. This is to say, without a long-life expectancy, 10 plus years at least, it is difficult for a mine to commit to an on-site solar or wind farm. So far, the most popular route around this hurdle is PPAs, as in the case of BHP Nickel West and SCE. 

However, another option, demonstrated earlier this month at the Agnew Gold Mine in WA, is the installation of solar microgrids on site. The Agnew Gold Mine recently saw the completion of a 7.7 MWp hybrid microgrid and a 2 MW battery storage system by British energy firm Aggreko. 

The key to this latter project is that it is a modular and mobile solution. As Aggreko’s Managing Director of Microgrids and Storage Solutions, Karim Wazi, told pv magazine Australia: “For MW-scale semi-permanent solar power plants, we enter into PPA contracts ranging from 5-15 years. This means that if a mine is only operational for five years, Aggreko can demobilise the assets and redeploy them to another customer, thereby assuming utilisation risks and providing flexibility for the customer. In 2021, we are launching a much more redeployable product in the 100kW range that we will be able to offer over rental periods as short as a few months.” 


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