The green rush: Australian mining's unlikely emergence as leaders of the eco-revolution

Mining and the leaders of the eco-revolution

In response to climate change, Australian mining companies are fast mastering the art of the ‘pivot’: transforming Australia from one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels to an emerging leader in green mining.

Far from doing the bare minimum, mining companies large and small across Australia are leading the charge to an eco-revolution, committing to carbon reduction targets that exceed government targets and generating a sense of urgency within the industry to shift to renewables. Australia is blessed with an abundance of renewable resources such as wind and sun, plenty of land, and a wealth of minerals and metals vital for renewable energy – all of which provide incredible opportunity for savvy mining companies to drive us towards a carbon neutral future. Who are the mining giants racing to secure resources and partnerships that will set them up as green powerhouses of the future?

Fortescue Future Industries leads the charge

Australian mining heavyweight Fortescue Metals Group, together with its offshoot company Fortescue Future Industries (FFI), is currently shaking up the industry in a dramatic fashion, pursuing renewable energy opportunities at breakneck speed, all the while challenging the rest of the industry to ‘catch us if you can’. 

At the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), FFI was announced as a founding member of the prestigious First Movers Coalition (FMC), which consists of approximately 25 companies worldwide tasked with building private-sector demand to speed clean energy technology innovation and confront the climate crisis. At COP26, FFI Chief Executive Officer Julie Shuttleworth told world leaders: “Green hydrogen is the practical, implementable solution that will decarbonise heavy industry and create jobs globally now. Fortescue is leading by example, with a goal to decarbonise its operations by 2030, using renewable electricity, green hydrogen and green ammonia.”

Putting their money where their mouth is, FFI has just gained planning approval to build one of the world’s largest hydrogen equipment manufacturing facilities in Gladstone, boosting Queensland’s credentials as a world leader in green hydrogen. The facility will be the first in Australia to manufacture the multi-gigawatt-scale electrolysers used worldwide in hydrogen production. It will be the largest electrolyser factory in the world when it goes live in 2023. The pioneering project is expected to generate over 300 jobs over its lifecycle, including construction and ongoing operations.

FFI has also recently announced it is partnering with Papua New Guinea (PNG) to develop up to seven hydropower projects and 11 geothermal energy projects across the country. The projects would generate renewable electricity to produce green hydrogen and green ammonia, reducing PNG’s reliance on imported oil and positioning PNG to become a world leader in renewable energy production and export. FFI’s identified projects could produce up to 2.3 million tonnes of green hydrogen per year in PNG once up and running.

In the transport sector, FFI has recently partnered with Universal Hydrogen Co to enable the aviation industry to decarbonise via zero-emissions green hydrogen. Earlier this year, FFI achieved successful combustion of blended ammonia fuel in a locomotive, paving the way to trains being fully renewable. FFI is also making waves in the shipping industry, hustling to launch a green ship at sea in 2022, which will run almost totally on green ammonia.

BHP embraces green rush

Australia’s largest mining company BHP is another industry leader driving change towards renewables. In October, the mining giant signed a landmark deal with Iberdrola Australia to reduce emissions at its Olympic Dam mine – one of the biggest copper, gold and uranium deposits in the world. The partnership will see the mine taking power from the new Port Augusta Renewable Energy Park in South Australia, effectively slashing emissions at Olympic Dam by half. In 2020, BHP signed a five-year contract with CleanCo Queensland, that will see it source wind and solar to deliver up to half of the power needs for its coal mining operations in Queensland. BHP has also recently signed a 10-year contract with Western Australia’s largest solar farm – Merredin solar farm – to supply up to half of the electricity needs at its West Kwinana refinery in Western Australia. 

In a further shift away from fossil fuels, BHP sold its global oil and gas assets this year to Woodside Petroleum, in part to free up capacity to focus on what it calls the ‘future-facing’ renewable commodities of copper and nickel. BHP has entered partnerships with both Tesla and Prime Planet Energy & Solutions – a lithium-ion battery maker owned by Toyota and Panasonic – to supply nickel from Western Australia’s Nickel West mining, smelting and refining operations. In addition, BHP has signed a number of wind and solar contracts to support its mines that are supplying this nickel to Tesla  – another significant move into the renewable energy space.

All aboard the green express

As Australia’s mining giants gather momentum and strengthen their foothold in the green mining space, smaller mining companies are leaping on board. The electrification of mining brings new opportunities for smaller mines to open up further afield and power themselves with their own wind or solar microgrids, no longer reliant on Australia’s fixed electricity grid. Tier 2 and Tier 3 miners are leading the way with electrification, particularly because renewable grids cannot yet power large-scale mining trucks. Thus, smaller mining companies are better placed to take advantage of electrification with smaller vehicles – reducing both costs and carbon emissions in the process. 

A recent industry report found that clean energy goods and services could generate as much as 395,000 new jobs across Australia and $89 billion in new export trade – including green hydrogen, green metals and critical minerals – by 2040. It’s clear that green mining is the way of the future and companies large and small across Australia are moving in that direction. The message from the top is clear: pivoting to a more renewable-powered model is not only socially responsible and crucial for tackling climate change, but a way to future-proof your business and remain competitive is a rapidly evolving industry.