Queensland mine in line to be Australia’s first powered by PV



US firm First Solar is to build a 1.7MW PV-diesel hybrid system to power mining giant Rio Tinto’s Weipa bauxite mine in Queensland, Australia.

The system will be followed up by a further 5MW once the first phase has been commissioned and is the first such installation to be deployed in Australia to power a mining operation.

The two phases of the project are to receive grants totalling AU$11.3 million from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the body set to be scrapped by the government of prime minister Tony Abbott.

First Solar will supply thin-film PV modules and build the project with local firm, Ingenero.

ARENA said the initial phase of the system would generate sufficient power to offset an anticipated 20% of the mine’s daytime electricity demand and save Rio Tinto an estimated 600,000 litres of diesel a year.

At the completion of stage two, which will also involve the installation of battery storage technology, up to 100% of diesel-generated electricity could be replaced with solar power, ARENA said.

“For the Weipa bauxite mine, solar PV complements the existing base-load generation by providing electricity in times of peak demand and reducing the amount of diesel fuel used,” said Jack Curtis, First Solar's vice president of business development for Asia Pacific.

“First Solar is delighted to be working with Rio Tinto, ARENA and Ingenero on this landmark project that demonstrates how solar PV can be used to power the resources sector.”

Despite confirmation last week by Australia’s government that ARENA will be scrapped, funding for the second round of the Weipa project is safe; shortly after the government confirmed its intention to abolish the body last week, ARENA said it would see through the 181 projects to which it had committed around AU$1 billion of fund.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said the Weipa project demonstrated the potential of renewable energy to power remote mining operations.

“This is the first time a mining company has adopted renewable energy for its Australian operations and is the first project to be funded through the industry arm of ARENA’s Regional Australia’s Renewables Program.”

Frischknecht said off-grid communities and businesses have had little choice but to rely on diesel generators that are expensive to run and subject to volatile fuel prices.

“ARENA sees mining as a huge potential off-grid user of renewable energy in Australia and congratulates Rio Tinto Alcan for paving the way for other mining operations to adopt renewable energy and offset diesel use through this landmark demonstration project.

“The information and data generated by this project will be captured and transferred through a knowledge sharing plan negotiated with ARENA and will ensure the sector is in a good position to advance commercially viable, off-grid renewable energy solutions,” Frischknecht said.

First Solar’s Curtis told The Australian newspaper that he expected further projects similar to Weipa, despite the dismantlement of ARENA.

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