Transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy sources is at the top of the global agenda, with 196 countries signing up to a legally binding treaty to limit the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. According to the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest and decline by 43% by 2030 to achieve these targets. The record number of weather catastrophes and record high temperatures during 2023 highlights climate change’s increasingly visible and damaging impact on the world.
The mining industry is particularly energy-intensive, traditionally relying on fossil fuels to mine, process, and operate, and responsible for 10% of global emissions. According to Nature Vault, total annual emissions from gold mines reached 126 Mt CO2 in 2019, which, according to its calculations, is equivalent to burning 300 million barrels of oil. That compares with the about 70 Mt CO2 the iron ore industry emits annually, according to SP Global. Meanwhile, steel production is the single biggest contributor, responsible for 7% of global mining and metal emissions globally, according to data sourced from a KU Leuven report.
The gold mining industry is cognizant of the critical role it needs to play in alleviating its impact on climate change. Failure to do so will be unsustainable, and thus, most mining groups have embarked on a sustainability journey that includes investing in renewable energy solutions to power their operations and reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and carbon footprints.
Pan African Resources is making significant inroads in proactively diversifying its energy mix by increasing the proportion of solar energy it relies on to power its mines. Solar power is a natural first choice on the African continent because it is abundant, free, accessible, and inexhaustible and allows mines to minimize their material impact on the environment.
Reducing greenhouse gases is just one of the benefits of relying on solar energy in gold mining. Others include water conservation and the reclamation of land previously disturbed by mining sites. Solar plants need significant space; fortunately, gold mines have ample available land that requires rehabilitation. For instance, Pan African Resources’ Evander solar plant was built on vacant land previously used as hostels for mining employees. Employees now live with their families in nearby communities, further improving their quality of life.
Mines also use vast amounts of water to facilitate mining operations and Pan African Resources has recently commissioned a recycling plant that allows the vast amount of underground water to be used as mine process water. This is a significant saving as the company does not have to purchase water from the municipality, and this also makes more potable water available for additional communities. Solar-powered systems also offer the opportunity to introduce agro-voltaic projects using the land under the solar panels to grow agricultural produce.
There are several sustainability advantages to combining agriculture and photovoltaics. Turning the land under solar panels into productive agricultural land allows the sun’s energy to be used twice: powering the irrigation of crops and creating solar energy to drive the mines. Thus, it makes good use of available land and provides shade, reducing water wastage through evaporation by 20% to 30%.
Renewable energy-powered mines are undoubtedly the way of the future for the gold mining industry, with the International Renewable Energy Agency estimating that by deploying renewable energy, the mining sector could achieve a 16% reduction in energy-related emissions by 2030.