Mark Hannan, General Manager for Mining Decarbonisation at Shell, explores how mining operators can switch their fleets from diesel to low-carbon fuels as part of a wider transition to zero-carbon fuels.
The mining industry is in need of decarbonisation but delivering change at pace is a real challenge. There is huge pressure to achieve this when, it is estimated, 10% of the world’s energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from primary minerals and metals production, according to Nature Geoscience Magazine (2020).
For a mining company to achieve their decarbonisation goals, it is beneficial to maximise the benefits in the short term while providing greater flexibility for the long term. One such area that offers opportunities for this is fuel switching in mining fleets.
Decarbonisation drives the need for alternative fuels
No matter what stage a mining business has reached on its pathway to decarbonisation, it is important to review how its mobile assets impact the environment. McKinsey shows that between 40-50% of CO2 emissions in mining come from the diesel used for mobile assets.
Due to concerns around diesel fumes in confined spaces, the problem is largely being solved in underground sites – with some due to run entirely on battery-electric assets in the near term. In open-pit mines, where equipment is larger, emissions from diesel fuel are a challenge still to overcome, which is why fuel switching is essential to decarbonisation.
However, there are still many elements to consider when making the business case for alternative fuels. This includes the performance of alternative fuels in comparison with diesel, the capital investment needed to implement them and how widely available they are. That is before analysing the benefits of meeting emissions targets against the higher cost of using low-carbon fuels.
A net-zero future is coming, but it is not here yet
In the longer term, there are two diesel alternatives that will offer key routes to effective fuel switching: hydrogen and electricity.
Hydrogen is set to play a significant role in the decarbonisation of every industry – not least those featuring hard-to-abate sectors like mining. As well as reducing emissions in overall energy use across sites, hydrogen will provide a low-carbon alternative to diesel that also delivers higher energy density to drive the performance of mobile assets.
Government support for hydrogen power is growing rapidly and it is an area in which Shell is working closely with customers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to drive innovation and deliver supply at scale. However, with hydrogen supply dependent on elements such as the availability and cost of technology, land, water, storage and transport, it is an alternative that will only start to present real impact from 2030 and beyond.
For off-highway equipment in mining, fleet electrification is often seen as a more relevant near-term solution. This is not surprising as electric power can not only contribute to reduced emissions but also help businesses shift away from their exposure to volatile diesel prices – potentially leading to a positive impact on total cost of ownership (TCO).
To help deliver on the mining industry’s longer-term aspirations for fleet electrification, Shell is developing a suite of modular end-to-end solutions for mining heavy-duty vehicles that decarbonises haul trucks while minimising the operational impact of electrification in a scalable, interoperable and sustainable way.
When looking to make the switch to electrification, mining companies must address the significant escalation in power demand that would come with full-scale electrification. Also, they will want to know the electricity is generated from renewable sources – helping them to reduce their Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Electrification powered by renewable energy will be a significant driver of change for mining sites, which is why Shell is working to overcome the barriers to increasing its renewable capacity – such as the need for upgrades to the grid and storage capabilities.
Low-carbon fuels offer an immediate next step for mining businesses
Hydrogen and electrification represent the future of fuel for mobility in mining. But, in the short term, there is another alternative that can act as a transition fuel and help lower emissions while businesses wait for hydrogen and electricity to become viable at scale: low-carbon fuels.
There are two types of low-carbon fuels relevant to mobility in mining:
- Biodiesel – also known as Fatty Acid Methyl Ester (FAME); and
- Renewable diesel – also known as Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO)
Though both are derived from organic biomass like waste vegetable oils and animal fats, there are differences in their chemical composition owing to a different manufacturing process that impact their use. For instance, biodiesel is the more affordable choice, yet most OEMs place a limit on the percentage it is possible to blend with conventional diesel due to quality concerns such as storage stability and performance in cold temperatures. Renewable diesel more closely resembles the composition of conventional diesel, meaning it can be blended in any ratio up to a concentration of 100%, but is more expensive due to the complexity in refinery processing. Crucially, both fuels offer a route to emissions reduction in mining – and a combination of the two is likely to be needed.
These low-carbon fuels offer a more immediate solution to the challenges of fleet decarbonisation in mining, without making costly investments in infrastructure. Not only can they be used in existing heavy-duty diesel engines, but, as long as they are in accordance with manufacturer advice, they also require no infrastructure investment. This makes them a more affordable short-term option that enables businesses to reduce emissions today while working to implement the ecosystem needed to transition to hydrogen and electricity tomorrow.
Overcoming the challenges of availability at scale
The merits of low-carbon fuels for a sites’ mobility needs might already be clear. After all, the technology is mature and it is easy to implement – certainly compared with hydrogen and electricity. However, there are still barriers to overcome before we see widespread adoption in the mining industry.
Availability and affordability are the two critical challenges. Despite its maturity, supply of low-carbon fuels is tight – especially given the remote regions that mining operations usually take place in. The need to comply with regional regulations on renewable fuels is also driving rising demand. For example, the EU Commission’s renewable energy directive has proposed increasing its target for renewable energy sources consumption by 2030 to 45% (up from its current goal of 32%).
Also, mining is not the only sector looking to alternative fuels to drive decarbonisation, meaning businesses will need to compete and trade with areas like commercial road transport to source low-carbon options. With more users needing access to alternative fuels, premiums for low-carbon fuels remain high. This can make low-carbon fuels less affordable and risks undermining any TCO improvements businesses can expect to realise from fuel switching.
It means that businesses are hesitant to act today as they wait for more capacity and greater competition to arrive – even though mining cannot afford to delay its emissions reduction efforts. That is why, at Shell, we are working to deliver additional capacity and competition. As well as investing in new production facilities (including a new biofuels facility in the Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Rotterdam, which will produce sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel made from waste in The Netherlands once it comes onstream), we are using our existing relationships with OEMs to help mining businesses get the most out of the low-carbon fuels they do have access to.
Collaboration will be critical to fuel switching success
Ultimately, if mining businesses are to meet their regulatory responsibilities while driving performance, they will need to unlock the opportunity that fuel switching provides. From low-carbon fuels to electrification to hydrogen, there is huge potential to reduce emissions while improving the TCO of mining mobility.
Successful fuel switching will require close collaboration with partners and suppliers to create a new fuel ecosystem by improving the availability and affordability of alternatives to conventional diesel. Only by working together will we deliver a new fuel future for mining, which is why Shell Mining is committed to supporting the industry on every step of its decarbonisation journey.
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