The mining industry has long held a controversial reputation; on the one hand, we rely upon the minerals and resources it provides for us, but on the other hand, it has become synonymous with ideas of pollution and destruction. We can’t get rid of mining, but we also can’t continue as we are, so what’s to be done? Thankfully, companies such as Adria Power Systems are offering an alternative that allows mining to be cleaner, greener and even safer for the miners themselves. We spoke with Jean-Francois Couillard, Adria’s President and CEO, to find out how.
Traditionally, the mining industry relies on fossil fuels, consuming diesel, crude oil and coal. It’s no surprise that this heavy reliance on such fuels has led to the mining industry holding a reputation as a ‘dirty’ industry. Whilst progress happens at different stages in different countries and under different companies, as a whole, the industry has been making a visible push to improve in other areas: more emphasis on CSR initiatives to support their local areas, for example, with a more conscientious awareness of mitigating any negative long-term effects of a mine’s existence in an area, for people and the environment. Some mines still have a way to go, but here at Endeavour, we’ve been amazed at some of the life-changing programs that have been set up by mines for the communities around them. And yet, for as long as the fuel issue doesn’t change, that reputation remains, as does public concern. Thankfully, there is a way forwards: battery-powered, electrical mining operations. If mines can ditch the dirty fuels and, alongside this, we can move ever-more firmly towards renewable electricity sources, then we could see a time when mining is a clean industry. This isn’t just a pipe dream: it’s possible now, and companies such as Adria Power Systems are making it so.
Adria is based in Rouyn-Noranda in northern Québec, a mining hub area in its own right. The company produces electrical equipment for the mining industry, and in particular, it focuses on power equipment such as distribution centers and switchgears. In recent history, companies have viewed a transition onto electric motors and operations with reluctance, due largely to inferior battery technology and high upfront investments with a long road before payback would be seen. Technology improves every year, and now, much as in the automotive industry superior lithium batteries and other technological improvements across the board have made the change changing to electrically powered mining equipment not only viable, but highly advantageous. Jean-Francois explained the benefits to us:
“Firstly, there’s a good payback on it. It’s efficient; you can have a gain in productivity, because these machines can drive faster and they’re stronger. A mining company will save a lot of money on the cost of ventilation, which is a really high cost of the operation. Technically, the machines cost more, so the initial cost – the CAPEX – is higher, but in the long run, the OPEX is lower. Then, there’s the social side as well: it helps us in the mining industry to have a better image, and it’s a really good thing to be able to do, to do one’s part if you can.”
This moral side addresses more than environmental concerns, which are in and of themselves extremely important – especially as, at the time of writing this, COP26 prepares to meet. However, this benefit is also more direct and much closer to home for mining companies, as electrical power also benefits the safety and health of their miners. “Combustion engines generate gas,” Jean-Francois explains for us, “So when using them underground, this gas needs to be extracted. This is the cause of high ventilation costs, which you save on with electric power. Yet even when you do you extract this gas with an expensive ventilation system, the workers that are present still breathe in some of this gas and pollutant, and it has been proven recently that these emissions are a known source of cancer.”
That, if anything is a direct motive to move over to a cleaner, safer alternative. Yet, it still seems to be early days in terms of mines adopting this technology. We asked Jean-Francois about the current response and uptake for the technology:
“Nowadays, I think everyone sees the appeal, but five or six years ago, it was different. Some people needed to be convinced. It’s like the automotive industry – it started slowly, and now it’s ramping up. You need time for people to adapt and trust the technology. Today, I don’t encounter anyone with no interest.” Whilst interest seems to be universal, this doesn’t mean that all mines are converting: there are numerous factors, from the cost and time to how established the mine already is, and how much its infrastructure would require adaption. There is also, Jean-Francois explained to us, the fact that for many mining companies, operations themselves are still a fact of the future: “The mining companies and projects themselves are at a lot of different levels; some are still studying and exploring, some are planning, some have implemented their plans – it’s really varied.”
For the most part, companies making this move over to cleaner energy are doing so in new mines, as it is easier to design a mine and its infrastructure around the need from scratch, rather than adapting one system into another. That said, some existing mines are doing just this, and whilst Jean-Francois cautioned that such conversations need to be approached on a case-base-case basis, in order to assess their viability and cost, he predicts that such transitions will only increase as governments continue to incentivize companies to make these moves. In time, he anticipates that legislation may even insist upon a ditching of fossil fuels.
“In another five-six years, I would say that you will see a lot more mining projects using these machines – it will be closer to the norm. In 15 years or so, there will be no more diesel machines that will be used, except in a very specific case.”
On Adria’s side, the challenges of these installations or conversions come from the varied conditions of the mines they service – dust levels, temperature, humidity, etc. This all calls for differences in the technology to make sure that it runs optimally. For the companies, however, whilst time and cost are a factor, Jean-Francois tells us that the largest concern is a retraining of staff, and even here, Jean-Francois was able to share some of the advantages of an electrical system over traditional methods: “Operators really like to work with battery operated machine, because they can have 100% of the torque at zero speed – it offers a very high performance. They also don’t typically require the same amount of maintenance as a diesel-powered machine. It’s a win on almost every side.”
Adria Power Systems has been creating electrical equipment for 15 years, and its involvement with electric mining began in 2012 when it built the world’s first mining duty charger. It created this charger for Kirkland Lake Gold, which was the first mine to transition some of its operations over to electrical power. The mine initially made this move out of necessity, due to a set of specific circumstances that meant it could not have one of its machines run from diesel. This initial collaboration led to an entire set of operations for Adria, and now, the company is involved in a new collaboration: the Innovative Vehicle Institute, Propulsion Québec and the National Research Council of Canada are collaborating with Adria Power Systems and others to develop the technology surrounding electric heavy vehicles used in open-pit mining, and Adria was tasked with providing the charging system. This is an exciting project that has allowed Adria to take its current abilities further, with what should be a massive impact on the mining industry’s electric potential, and Jean-Francois feels that it is securely within Adrai’s skills: “We have been supplying electrical equipment for more than 25 years already, so this knowledge is already there. I would say it’s still within in our comfort zone, even if it’s a new technology, because the environments and challenges are the same, and we’ve mastered our environment very well.”
A major goal of this work is the provision of a charging station for electric mining vehicles and machines that serves with universal compatibility; at present, there is no set standard between the companies that produce these vehicles and machines, so almost every company’s products come with their own charger. If this is vexing enough when it comes to your phone or laptop, imagine it for a fleet of heavy machining, with a truck sometimes costing around $2million. “For a mine, that means you have to attach to this one OEM for the entire mine life. That’s a challenging thing in the mining industry, having to commit for a lifetime with one company. So, what we offer is a charger that has a high performance and is also able to be compatible with any kind of OEM, any kind of communication protocol or charging protocol.” Jean-Francois told us that sometimes, a mine must double up their charging infrastructure just to allow them to own and operate machines from two different companies. This is a huge and unnecessary cost. “With our charging stations, they’re not in a dependent position – they’re in control of their own infrastructure.”
Providing this charging station, which Adria created at one megawatt, allowed the company to do further testing and development on its charging technology in general, which has allowed it to further tackle what it identifies as an important issue within the industry: the quality of charging signal. Many of the chargers currently on the market produce harmonics and distortion – an issue that hardly shows up if you test one or two chargers, but can become a huge disruption to efficiency once you have a full-scale operation of 50-100 units. In tightening up on this issue, Adria provides chargers that won’t lose companies money through the cracks of this overlooked problem.
Jean-Francois is currently Adria’s President and CEO, and he has been with the company a long time. “My journey started in 1999. Personally, I have always been #attracted to electricity systems, and also to adapting solutions to the needs of customers rather than offering something that doesn’t necessarily answer all of their needs. Both as a person and a company, you get more value if you are able to challenge yourself, find solutions to problems and improve people’s working conditions.”
Having grown up in Canada, mining was a natural industry to end up working in, and as a way of life that is close to his heart, Jean-Francois did not simply want to be a part of this industry, but a part of helping it to improve, thus safeguarding it and those within it as we work towards a greener future. “Canada is a resource country: mining industry in Canada is an important chunk of the economy, and it’s also an important part of our culture. Where we’re located, in Rouyn-Noranda, I would challenge you to find one person who does not know at least five people who work in a mine. It really is a part of our culture, so for us, it’s natural to work with these industries and to try to develop them.”
Naturally, we asked Jean-Francois about the past 18 months, and amazingly, it sounds as though the recent pandemic period has had a golden lining, at least for the mining industry and those involved. “The mining industry is booming. We saw that at the beginning – I was following the price of gold. It has the ‘safe haven’ value, you know? If there’s insecurity, globally, then usually, the gold price is going up. In this case, over the last five years, the trend was already headed that way, which means the upward boom is every greater. This demand is coming for other materials, as well: the demand for copper is rising, and you have a lot of demand for rare earth minerals, so I think the forecast for mining for the next ten years is going to be very good. Even just around us, in a 100km radius, there are a lot of big projects coming in – we’re talking projects with over $1billion budget. It’s very interesting.”
The pandemic period wasn’t without its cost, of course, and for Jean-Francois, it was the human impact that mattered most. “The human factor is the most important of everything. We can talk about the industry, technology, but at the end of it, everything is driven by humans, and humans – we’re driven by flesh, bone and emotions. When you have a period of instability like that, you need to take care of your people, you need to be close to them, and that’s what we did.” As well as regular calls to check in on employees whilst they were stuck at home, the company invested in creating a daycare centre for its staff to allow them to return to work – a response to the number of daycare centres that went out of business during the lockdown period.
So, after exciting ventures and within a profitable market, what does the future hold for Adria Power systems? The company is looking to continue down these avenues it has developed, passionate about seeing the mining industry grow cleaner and safer, and it is also looking at spreading this benefit further: “We’re soon bringing another product line to the market – distribution of energy products that are still applicable to the mining industry, but are more focused on commercial and industrial application. These will come to the market in the new couple of months; the mining industry is looking positive and will continue to be so, but entering other markets would be good diversification.”
“Clean electric energy is a game changer that can bring improvements on every side of the business. It protects everyone – the environment, the worker, the company, and the future of the mining industry.”