The plant will replace about 5 million litres of diesel a year, a fifth of the mine's energy needs. Energy generated by the system may eventually cost about half that of diesel-generated power, according to Sandfire Resources, the deposit's owner.
Miners including Rio Tinto are installing new solar plants from Chile to South Africa, betting they'll deliver long-term savings even as tumbling oil prices cut power costs. The global solar-power market for mining companies may grow to about $US2 billion ($2.8 billion) a year by 2022 from about $US42 million in 2013, according to Navigant Consulting.
Rio Tinto, the second-largest mining company, is completing the construction of a demonstration solar farm at its Weipa bauxite operation in Queensland with US companies First Solar and Ingenero.
"We've got an amazing opportunity with the sun power that's generated," Sandfire chief Karl Simich said in an interview. The 20-hectare, 10.6 megawatt solar farm, will have 34,000 modules when installed by February at the site 900 kilometres north of Perth.
Both Sandfire and Rio's solar installations are being aided by government funding, while the cost of developing solar farms means it's probably not suitable for smaller mines, according to gold producer Doray Minerals.
"With the capital investments up front, a short mine life doesn't really pay it back," Doray Managing Director Allan Kelly said. "If we had a 10-year mine life, we'd definitely look at it. The technology is improving."
At DeGrussa, where there's a daily average of 9 to 10 hours of sunshine a day, Sandfire sees its solar farm cutting carbon dioxide emissions by about 12,000 metric tons a year, as it also delivers savings to energy costs.
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