October 2021
Worldwide climate change has been accelerating in response to accumulating greenhouse gas emissions. As a number of countries have made commitments to move towards a net-zero emissions economy, copper companies have also set ambitious emissions targets, making efforts to stay ahead of the curve.

The energy and emissions intensity of copper mines is tied to operational characteristics such as ore types, geographic settings, ore grades, and mining and processing technologies. Typically, older mines will be producing lower ore grades and have deeper pits and declines, making operations more energy- and water-intensive per tonne of copper produced. There are differing opinions as to whether pyrometallurgical processes have a higher energy intensity than hydrometallurgical processes.

What common initiatives are utilised in the copper industry and what strategies are currently being employed by mining companies to achieve their goals? There are numerous ways in which companies can approach emissions. These include renewable energy power purchase agreements, self-generation, shifting equipment fuel types, carbon offsets, improving technology, converting to electric systems, divesting of assets, and emissions capture.

 

Renewable Energy Power Purchase Agreements

BHP’s Escondida and Spence mines in Chile began operating with renewable energy in August of this year as the first renewable energy contracts tendered in 2019 came into force. The replacement of fossil-fuel based contracts with those based on 100% renewable energy will displace more than 3Mt of carbon dioxide per year from 2022, the equivalent of the annual emissions of around 700,000 combustion-engine cars. BHP plans to use 100% renewable energy at these assets by the mid-2020s.

Teck Resources signed a long-term agreement last year to power its Carmen de Andacollo copper operation in central Chile with 100% renewable energy. The move, part of the company's plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, will eliminate 200kt of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the equivalent of taking 40,000 cars off the road annually. Carmen de Andacollo will be supplied with 72MW per year from American power distribution company AES Corp's portfolio of wind, solar and hydroelectric energy. AES Gener will also supply more than 50% of the power required for Teck’s Quebrada Blanca Phase 2 project in Chile, currently under construction. Teck plans to source all power for its Chilean operations from renewable sources by 2030 and to reduce the carbon intensity of its operations by 33% by 2030.

On 1st January 2020, Amerigo Resources’ Minera Valle Central (MVC) operation in Chile entered into a long-term power supply agreement that runs to 31st December 2037. Under this contract, all the electricity used at MVC is being supplied from renewable sources.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa's major copper producers and the world's biggest cobalt miner, however, it lacks reliable access to electricity. Its state-owned utility company SNEL has signed power purchase agreements to construct two 100MW solar power plants in the copper-and-cobalt-rich southeast region. SNEL plans to break ground for these two plants in March 2022, with the plants scheduled to begin operations in early 2023.

In May 2021, the world-class Kamoa-Kakula copper mine in the DRC achieved first production. With the operation being powered by hydro-generated electricity and the proposed introduction of mining equipment supported by electric batteries, Kamoa-Kakula is expected to be one of the lowest carbon emitters among the top-tier copper mines in the world.