Feb 22, 2021
Human capital: How BEVs in underground mining change the working environment for the better
8 MIN READ
The use of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in mining represents an extreme and stunning example of the non-financial benefits of electrification. This article highlights how the calculus for executives considering switching their fleets from diesel to electric goes far beyond direct financial considerations.
Quebec is taking a further step into the future of mining. This month the province’s first underground all-electric bolter — a large, four-wheel vehicle used to install stabilizing bolts in underground tunnel roofs and walls — went into operation.
Brad Trottier, senior electrical product support technician for MacLean Engineering, of Owen Sound, Ont., assisted the deal between the mine contractor, CMAC-Thyssen, and the electric mining equipment OEM. And at a recent training session for the operators of the new electric bolter, he offered some high praise.
“I was talking with [the operators] when we were doing training and saying you should really feel proud of what’s been done here and the company you work for because they’ve done it: they took the first step out of anybody in the province.”
Help seal the deal
Why pride, exactly? Equipment sales often ride on price and cost-to-performance ratios, but when it comes to electric mine equipment, Trottier says, a telling difference is that the non-financial benefits sometimes help seal the deal (cost and performance benefits count, too, of course, which we’ll examine separately in the next story in this series). High on that list: the well-being of the miners who drive and operate the equipment — something Trottier says he experienced firsthand during test drives on an electric scoop several years ago.
“What blew me away right off the hop was the amount of power available in the unit compared to diesel. You don’t have the vibrations running through you when you are operating an EV unit and you don’t have that constant droning sound around you all day. You’re not stressed. You don’t feel as tired working around that gear.”
Trottier is hardly alone in extolling the non-financial benefits that take hold as more companies in the Canadian mining industry transition from diesel machinery to battery-powered gear.
Don Duval, CEO at NORCAT in Sudbury, Ont., a leader in training and skills development as well as the testing and showcasing of mining technology and innovation, has comparable enthusiasm.
“The global mining industry is undergoing a technology transformation unlike any other time in the industry’s history,” says Duval. “The electrification of mining operations is going to be an absolute core contributor to the transformation of mining operation in Canada and around the world.”
With more than 80 per cent of electric mining machinery in use worldwide deployed in Canadian mines — the vast majority of it in Ontario and Quebec — the country is offering a real-time example of how mines are able to reap the non-financial benefits of going electric.
And the boons are far reaching and impactful: health benefits for operators, a competitive edge to attract talent, increased safety, cutting carbon emission en route to zero-emissions future, and building and fortifying social license. The pieces that form the whole picture portray a mining ecosystem that is vastly improved from most current realities.
Suddenly, industry stakeholder who have been wondering “Why go electric?” may be asking instead, “Why aren’t we electric already?”
To put it bluntly: mining, and especially deep underground mining, is not kind to the human body. From staggering temperatures reaching as high as 80 C, non-stop noise pollution and the vibrations and jolts that come with combustion engines and being near dynamite blasts, miners are subjected to gruelling conditions.
Lung cancer in miners has been definitively linked to diesel exhaust fumes and the World Health Organization has categorized diesel emission particulates at the same toxicity as asbestos, arsenic and mustard gas. The toll mining takes on workers’ physical and mental health can not be minimized.
“To me the thing to remember is: how does it impact our people — the most important asset?,” says Sachin Jari, ABB’s general manager of mining North America. “On a people perspective [electrification] is the right thing to do.”
A 2019 Ernst & Young survey of international mining companies found those who were already going electric were receiving stunning feedback from their workforce. “We’ve already surveyed the first group of workers that started at our Borden mine,” said John Mullally, Newmont Goldcorp group executive for sustainability, North America, in an EY report on the potential of electrification for innovation in mining. “Something like 90 per cent said that they would not want to go back and work in a traditional underground mine alongside diesel engines.”
Electrified mines and mining equipment offer an undeniable improvement to overall worker health by cutting down on noise, reducing harmful emissions and improving air quality throughout the facility. The on-the-ground benefits to workers are such that electrification of mines is identified as one of the key factors in pivoting the industry.
“The biggest issue I see driving [vehicles] underground is human health. Over time, that’s going to push us toward electrification,” commented one survey respondent in the EY report.
Worker satisfaction and retention
All companies know that a happy worker is a more productive worker — above or below ground. Not only do miners universally praise the health improvement in their working conditions when using electrified mining equipment, but the equipment itself is the latest, cutting-edge technology with many able to be operated remotely from above ground.
“[Miners]no longer will accept a job whereby incrementally you can pay them more. They would rather decline the increase in salary to have a better working environment,” says Duval. “The social, emotional aspect of deploying these emerging technologies to win the battle for talent, especially in developed economies such as the Canadian one, in mining is going to become increasingly important.”
For a skilled worker in the mining industry, it’s an employee’s market. Mining companies will go to extraordinary lengths to secure the best and brightest professionals. Increasingly it appears Canada’s growing reputation as an electrification mecca is garnering interest in the talent pools and is only serving to speed up this country’s transition.
“Canada’s brand is a global powerhouse in mining. I estimate in the next three to five years you could see a bit of a hockey stick for adoption.”
One of the last places any person wants to have an adverse incident occur is 2,000 metres underground. The industry is constantly investing in resources and research to hone and refine best practices to avoid a catastrophe. One of the most pressing concerns is the risk of an underground fire.
Diesel machinery is inherently more susceptible to fire. Highly flammable fluids being tubed through the machine to various moving parts in extreme temperatures puts miners at a higher risk for fire. Battery electric vehicles underground pose a far less acute threat according to Boudreault. While there is always the possibility of a battery malfunction leading to ignition, the absence of highly flammable liquids and the 85 per cent decrease in operating temperature means an overall decrease in the number of fire risks.
Swedish manufacturer Epiroc put their first battery powered piece of mining equipment underground in 2013 and have accumulated over 120,000 hours of operation time — mostly in Canada — explains Franck Boudreault, the company’s electrification transformation lead. His answer is unequivocal when asked about fires on their electric machines: “When it comes to events on the battery we have zero to report. No event on the battery side.”
That’s not to say the risk is zero. This January, Glencore reported the findings from the first (and only) underground fire due to an electric machine at its Craig Mine, in Onaping, Ont. The incident happened last July, while two workers were troubleshooting an issue on one of the machines. An intense electrical arcing event occurred, trapping the miners and starting a fire. Luckily, the miners were rescued and brought to the surface unharmed. Glencore chose to speak publicly about the incident as a way to raise awareness of electric machine safety underground.
Their investigation concluded it was a series of errors — a combination of wear-and-tear and a maintenance service mistake — that made the machine vulnerable to fire due to having no overcurrent protection. Their decision to go public was commended by industry peers and, Glencore said, motivated by a desire to bring education and awareness to a rapidly changing industry.
“It’s something we’re not holding under a secret umbrella,” said Steve Holmik, a mobile equipment specialist with Glencore Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations at a Workplace Safety North seminar this January.
“I think we’ve come to realize that BEVs are here to stay. We’re one of the advocates for BEVs and BEV adoption and the education of the industry.”
Reduced CO2 emissions
Several non-financial arguments for pivoting to all-electric mining can be encapsulated in one story about one machine.
“If you look at an underground mine the biggest fuel consumer will be a mining truck. We offer a battery powered mine truck with a capacity of 42 metric tonnes. It’s designed to last 25,000 hours,” says Epiroc’s Boudreault. “This particular truck in a diesel version consumes about 40 litres per hour. And 40 litres times 25,000 hours is one million litres of diesel. That is 2,800 tonnes of CO2 for one truck.”
The average American car consumes 474 gallons (or 1,794 litres) of gas per year, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy. Based on that calculation, 557 passenger vehicles would have to be transitioned to BEVs to match the difference converting just one mining truck makes.
“The mining houses and mining management and production management have bigger power when it comes to the environment than we have as individuals. If a mine decides that we will go for zero emission then their decision has a huge impact for the world,” says Boudreault.
“They’re in a powerful situation where they can make a big difference.”
And it goes beyond the vehicles themselves. When an underground mine is dependent on diesel machinery, its single biggest ongoing concern is ventilation. The infrastructure is incredible with the largest mines potentially requiring over one million cubic feet of airflow every minute. That’s not to say an all-electric mine won’t require ventilation — it absolutely does. However, the critical difference is that it doesn’t require it at the same volume and in electrified “smart” mines the airflow systems can be programmed to automatically turn on or off in different areas of the mine depending on if they are being used.
Overall, the ventilation system for an all-electric mine will operate at roughly 50 per cent of the cost of a diesel mine and cut greenhouse emissions per mine by 70 per cent, according to government data. The Canadian government estimates transitioning to electric could save 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions per vehicle, every year.
Building social licence
“Mining is considered an essential business, but nobody wants it in their backyard,” says ABB’s Jari. “Traditionally it’s tough on the environment. Mining companies have done a lot of work and are required to leave the environment better or equal to what it was before we did the mining.”
Leaving the environment in the same state as you found it sums up what social license in the mining world means. It can be a tall order, but is one of the areas where electrification is making a massive impact on the objective.
In the checks and balances of allowing resource development projects to proceed, “social license” is a philosophy from 1996 that was developed as a pathway for companies to earn community acceptance about a resource development project. Having local support transforms the experience of the project and opens up opportunities for crossover collaboration and camaraderie.
One example of a successful social license to operate agreement is the Copper Mountain pit in Princeton, B.C.
Copper Mountain is projected to make operational Canada’s first electric trolley assist — a device that helps trucks adapted with a pantograph to ascend steep hills (similar to a funicular system). Copper Mountainprojects this assist will help them reduce their carbon footprint by 50 per cent in the next five to seven years. Copper Mountain is projected to maintain “at least” an A rating under the Canadian Mining Association’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) standards through 2021 and the opening of their electrified trolley assist may further boost their standing. The TSM is a globally regarded sustainability program and the first in the world to require site-level assessments. Mining associations in Spain, Finland, Norway, Botswana, Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines use the TSM standard.
“A large majority of the mining companies are already studying looking at e-possibilities. Many of them are running pilots or trials of some kind — proof of concepts,” explains Jari who also points to Quebec’s Nouveau Monde graphite mine as an example of electrification boosting social license.
For its part, Nouveau Monde pledged its Matawinie graphite project would be developed, “with electric carbon neutral production. Our fleet will be fully electrified in the first five years of our operation,” stated president and CEO, Eric Desaulniers, last December. The graphite from the mine will be used to supply the lithium-ion battery supply chain with sustainably and ethically extracted minerals.
The mining industry’s history is marked by watershed moments in technology and best practices advancements.
From the first proverbial canaries in the coal mine to sophisticated ventilation systems tethered to workers’ GPS devices; from tunnelling underground using picks and shovels to Quebec’s first all-electric bolter; from industrial age oil lamps lighting the passages to fully electrified underground complexes, the advancements have been consistent and impressive.
Now, the 2020s are poised to mark mining’s next watershed moment. Yes, conversion is a big ask. The technology is new, there is an elevated financial risk and the rethink on operator training and mine operation is daunting. But, bottom-line benefits aside, the growing evidence that this transition will result in mines that are cleaner, healthier and more productive than any in history should be more than enough to tip the balance.
“The general consensus is that we are in kind of a transition period right now, but moving forward mining is going to be electric. That’s the future. That’s where it’s going,” says Trottier. “The way of diesel equipment, that’s going to be the way of the Dodo bird soon. It’ll be gone.”