Trolley assist mining truck pilot proposed for Minnesota’s Iron Range

Minnesota Power is accelerating its plans for solar energy with an estimated C$40 million investment that emphasises its commitment to customers, clean energy and communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company recently announced its plan for approximately 20 MW of solar arrays in northern Minnesota in a filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The MPUC in May asked utilities to evaluate projects they could speed up as a way to kick-start local economies and put people back to work.

However, in the same filing, there is something for the mining world. Minnesota Power says it is also looking forward to working with customers on a potential mine truck electrification pilot. “While policy-makers have focused on the electrification of transportation and buildings, electrification of industry is a key interest of Minnesota Power and its mining customers. The company is evaluating the potential for a pilot project that could include support for a site-specific analysis, replacement or retrofitting or a portion of an existing haul truck fleet, engineering and installation of the catenary system and substations, and service extension to the trolley line.”

The longer actual filing adds: “Transitioning the haul trucks at Minnesota’s iron mines from diesel mechanical to electric drive would be an effective means of reducing fossil fuel consumption, carbon emissions, and criteria pollutants, while advancing the electrification of the transportation sector at an industrial scale. Further, mine truck electrification would enable more interruptible load which helps integrate additional variable renewable energy and keep costs down for customers. Minnesota Power is evaluating the potential for a Mine Truck Electrification Pilot Project which would facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner electric service. A potential pilot program could include financial support for: a site-specific analysis; replacement or retrofitting of a portion of an existing haul truck fleet; engineering and installation of the catenary system and substations; and service extension to the trolley line. Various factors, including many which are site specific, would determine the economic feasibility of trolley implementation.”

These factors are listed as the cost of electricity, price of diesel, slope, length and life of haul road, and productivity gains. A potential Mine Truck Electrification Pilot “would also include recommendations for rate structures and energy products that would support industrial scale transportation electrification and provide benefits to all customers.”

The filing concludes on this proposal that “Minnesota Power looks forward to working with its customers to continue collaboratively evaluating a Mine Truck Electrification Pilot and the identifying economic recovery benefits it could provide to the company’s largest industrial customers and region as a whole.”

Along with the filing is a series of supporting letters, which in the case of the trolley assist venture includes submissions from iron ore miner United Taconite, part of Cleveland-Cliffs Inc, mining truck OEM Komatsu and electrification and power technology major, ABB.

Cleveland-Cliffs’ iron ore mining and processing facilities in Minnesota include United Taconite located in Eveleth and Forbes. The company stated in its letter: “Cleveland-Cliffs has invested substantial capital dollars at United Taconite in order to maintain a sustainable, competitive and environmentally responsible operation. This includes a C$75 milion investment in operational upgrades and new infrastructure to produce the Mustang superflux iron ore pellet. The mine truck electrification proposal would provide an opportunity to further our dedication to pursuing ennvironmental improvement technologies that balance our need to remain competitive in a global market. The proposal is to evaluate a pilot project that would measure the benefits of vehicle electrification at an industrial scale. These benefits include the potential for further operational efficiencies, and added reductions in fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The letter adds: “Cleveland-Cliffs takes pride in producing environmentally friendly iron ore pellets and welcomes the opportunity to examine a partnership for further investment in clean steelmaking technology. Mines in other parts of the world have successfully implemented trolley assist and we encourage the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to support exploring the feasibility of a mine truck electrification pilot project in Minnesota.”

Road Machinery and Supplies (RMS) is the Komatsu certified dealership in Minnesota with its HQ in Savage. It said in its letter of support for the project: “Komatsu has a 30 year history of trolley innovation, development and experience working with customers to reduce diesel dependency and take advantage of the environmental impacts that trolley operation can offer. Currently there are 160 Komatsu electric drive trucks operating with trolley packages globally with a request for another 100+ units over the next three years. Trolley applications can reduce the emissions of greenhosue gases, increase productivity and reduce operating costs for the operations which utilise it. We encourage the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to support exploring the feasibility of a mine truck electrification pilot project in Minnesota.”

In another letter, Daniel Simounet, VP of the Transporation Sector, Americas region at ABB Power Grids stated: “ABB Power Grids has strong experience in designing and supplying traction power solutions for catenary applications and we would love to engage with Minnesota Power in a more detailed discussion on the potential project. ABB has been successfully involved in a similar application with a pilot project of four trucks at a copper mine in Sweden. The 700 m long trolley line is expected to save some 830 m3/y of diesel. This should help the mining operation reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% along those routes where the technology can be implemented. Due to the success of the pilot project, the mining company is now planning to expand trolley applications on different sites. We encourage the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to sypport exploring the feasbility of a mine truck electrificaiton pilot project in Minnesota.”

The Sweden project of course refers to Boliden Aitik, where a successful pilot involved four Caterpillar 795F AC trucks under trolley using ABB electric drive technology. At Aitik a further 3 km of electric trolley line is now being built and another ten trucks will be converted for electric trolley lines. Overall, it means that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation over the life of mine are reduced by nearly 15%. At Boliden’s Kevitsa mine, 17 Komatsu 830E-5 mining trucks using Wabtec electric drive technology have also been converted for electric trolley lines at the same time as a 1.8 km long electric trolley line is being built. The investment means that greenhouse gas emissions over the life of mine are reduced by 9%.