Renewable energy fuels Pan African’s journey towards more sustainable mining

Lines of solar panels in a field with a factory and hills behind it, with a cloudy sky depicted above that

Among South Africa’s many natural endowments, it is blessed with abundant solar energy – a free and inexhaustible resource that can provide renewable energy in mining.

Unavoidably, as mining companies like Pan African Resources extract minerals from the ground that the world needs, we disturb land, consume natural resources and generate waste, including carbon emissions. But we have proven our ability to apply technical skill and innovation to challenging problems and are currently addressing our footprint in all these areas to ensure that our operations are sustainable for the long term for the benefit of future generations.

In fact, in implementing our own solar-photovoltaic (PV)-powered mining, Pan African has been one of the first movers among miners in South Africa to seize the opening offered by the lifting of legislative caps on private energy generation.

Decarbonisation in mining is essential

Reliance on South Africa’s national electricity utility, Eskom, has presented several problems recently. Eskom sources most of its power from coal, which exacerbates our Scope 1 emissions. Over the past decade, Eskom power has become increasingly unstable and expensive. Unstable supply not only disrupts our production but poses a risk to our employees, particularly underground, and damages our high-value equipment.

Investing in our own renewable energy solar plants enables us to reduce our reliance on diminishing natural resources in a sustainable manner and limit our carbon footprint. These investments improve our financial performance because they enhance productivity, reduce downtime and bring down costs.

By generating our own power, we free up capacity on the national grid for other businesses and households to use.

These investments also enhance Pan African’s attractiveness to fund managers with a focus on sustainability. That is evident from the investment by Blackrock, one of the world’s biggest asset managers, to acquire 30 million shares in our company.

Creating the blueprint for sustainable mining

Our first move into solar for mining was a $10.7 million investment in a 10 MW solar PV plant at Elikhulu in Evander, using rehabilitated land which was formerly a mine hostel. Our EPC contractor was a local subsidiary of juwi Renewable Energies of Germany. We will operate this plant ourselves after a brief O&M contract with juwi, during which our own employees are being trained to operate it.

The Elikhulu solar PV plant is contributing a significant portion of the mine’s energy requirements. It will produce 25 000 MWh of electricity a year and save 26 000 t of CO₂ emissions a year – about 5% of our carbon footprint. This plant saves us ZAR 3 million a month or ZAR 36 million a year in electricity bills – and this at current Eskom tariffs!

We recently completed a feasibility study to increase the capacity of this plant to 22 MW, which would allow it to supply Evander’s underground operations with power.

During the construction phase, juwi used 10 local contractor companies, providing 202 local job opportunities. The skills developed by this project will be called upon for the 12 MW expansion phase.

Going green is a fundamental business strategy

Our next project will be an 8 MW solar PV plant at Barberton mines. We have completed the environmental and feasibility studies for the plant and completed permitting and obtained board approval and construction commenced in September 2022. Indigenous trees from the site have been relocated to other areas on the mine where alien invasive vegetation has been removed.

With the recent closing of the acquisition of Mogale Gold and Mintails SA Soweto Cluster transaction, we will be investigating the potential to install solar PV generation for those operations from the outset.

Ultimately, we are targeting to have 30 MW of solar capacity in place by 2024, which would produce about 75 000 MWh of power a year, save about R100 million a year in electricity bills and reduce our carbon emissions by 80 000 t/CO₂ a year.

Beyond solar, we are investigating battery technology, other renewable energy projects including wind farms (which may be off site), and as well as the potential to wheel power into the national grid and earn carbon credits for our operations.

Our goal is not only self-generation of power, but also greater energy efficiency, to limit our footprint. In 2022, we reduced our electricity consumption to 1.38 million GJ from 1.40 million GJ in 2021 despite increased gold production. Some of the energy efficiency initiatives we have introduced include high-efficiency motors and compressors and are investigating battery operated locomotives and LHDs for use underground.