The mining industry contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 4-7 per cent of the total emissions. The government has thus set goals to address the associated environmental concerns. Sustainable mining alternatives are therefore being adopted by public sector units (PSUs) under the Ministry of Coal. An investment plan of Rs 2,500 billion has been chalked out by the PSUs for clean coal technologies by 2030. They are also focusing on expanding the use of renewable energy sources through their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. Other important sustainable development trends in the sector include the deployment of sustainable mining equipment, water and wastewater management in operations, the use of more efficient technologies, and afforestation efforts.
Sustainable mining equipment
The two types of mining – opencast and underground – offer a large market for mining equipment. Opencast mining has been growing more than underground as the latter is more expensive and less sustainable. It contributes around 95 per cent of Coal India Limited’s (CIL) production and around 85 per cent of Singareni Collieries Company Limited’s, which are among the key players in the sector. This offers opportunity for the use of sustainable mining equipment. To this end, Komatsu India has introduced off-highway trucks compatible with biodiesel being manufactured in Oragadam near Chennai. It has also developed diesel-powered machine compatible with B20 biofuel that includes excavators, bulldozers, wheel loaders, motor graders and dump trucks. This is a big move as it can lead to a substantial reduction in the carbon footprint of the sector. There are also concerted efforts being made in research and exploration of alternative fuels to run mining equipment. Furthermore, the use of biofuel is incentivised by the Goods and Services Tax Council’s recent decision to reduce tax rates on ethyl alcohol from 18 per cent to 5 per cent. This would push original equipment manufacturers to manufacture and supply mining fleet with biodiesel compatibility.
Recently, there has been a shift to electrification of mining equipment. Companies are increasingly deploying more electric vehicles (EVs) for mining operations. Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL) launched passenger EVs for both underground operations and surface mobility for employees in March 2022. It has added electric scooters for its security staff and underground services for mines. These are in addition to HZL’s collaborations for the introduction of battery EVs along with the in-house solar power that will be used for charging EVs. Exploration of hydrogen fuel cells is also underway in the sector.
Shift to renewable energy sources
Among the recent trends in the mining sector is the push to renewable sources of energy at mining sites. Recently, the Indian Bureau of Mines undertook a sample survey of 293 mines for the installation of renewable energy plants across the mining sites in the country. The total installed renewable energy plant capacity at these sites is 583 MW (wind and solar combined).
In a related development, coal and lignite companies have planned an investment of over Rs 150 billion in 5,560 MW of renewable energy capacity to meet the goal of 500 GW of non-fossil energy capacity by 2030. For instance, Neyveli Lignite Corporation of India Limited has ventured into the renewable energy sector through wind- and solar-based power plants. It is the first public sector entity in the country to achieve solar power generation capacity of more than 1 GW. It has installed a 141 MW solar power plant to produce electricity from photovoltaic (PV) cells and 51 MW of electricity from windmills. It also aims to achieve a total renewable energy capacity of 6,031 MW by 2030. Similarly, CIL is developing solar power projects to meet its energy requirements. It has set a roadmap for 3 GW of solar power generation by 2023-24. It also plans to invest around Rs 426 billion in green energy and low-emission infrastructure for fossil fuel mining to achieve India’s net zero targets.
Other sustainable initiatives
Water resource management is gradually getting better with associated mandates in the sector. These mandates pertain to the processes of water abstraction, replenishment, and water quality monitoring. Dewatering limit, borewell water withdrawal limit, and installation of monitoring structures and equipment are the mandates for water abstraction. The mandates for water replenishment include the construction of replenishment structures, assessment of replenishment quantity, and periodic maintenance auditing. Technology adoption is also being undertaken for ensuring efficient water usage by companies. The operational simulation model and real-time data acquisition system that tracks the value chain of the mining process are some of the solutions that have been used. Furthermore, many mining wastewater treatment solutions are getting implemented by mining companies. Some of these include precipitation processes with pretreatment, neutralisation and metal removal, membrane technologies such as nanofiltration and electrodialysis, ion exchange, and concentration technologies.
Another sustainable initiative is the greening of around 2,400 hectares of land by PSUs. The aim is to plant 0.6 million saplings of local species in and around coalfield areas. As of June 2022, coal and lignite PSUs have planted more than 100 million trees and saplings. Over 0.1 million seedlings are being distributed by these companies among locals along with developing grasslands in mining areas with hi-tech cultivation. These initiatives would have a major impact given the large ecosystem these companies maintain. In another development, companies are pushing for sustainable mining through ESG initiatives. This is reflected in Vedanta’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050 by advancing its ESG performance in the sector. Similarly, Tata Steel targets to reduce emissions by around 30 per cent per tonne of crude steel by 2030.
The way forward
The mining industry is making headway in sustainable practices with systemic changes despite being a fragmented sector. An ambitious roadmap is being created by the government to meet the goal of net zero carbon emissions. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the National Mineral Development Corporation have also stressed upon the reduction of 30-40 per cent carbon emissions by mines and the mineral industry by 2030. Going forward, technologies such as coal bed methane and surface coal gasification will reduce emissions, improve the performance of coal mines and decarbonise the sector.
The government has set an ambitious target to augment non-fossil fuel capacity to 500 GW while ensuring 50 per cent energy requirements are met by renewables by 2030. This would require energy storage systems that are critical to integrate solar and wind power into the grid and support the power system. Moreover, there are other targets such as EV fleet adoption. HZL plans to replace its diesel-run vehicles and equipment with battery EVs across its eight mines in the next five years. There is a huge potential for the mining of beaches, minerals and rare earth metals in India. Although with the banned entry of the private sector in the rare earth metals segment, the onus of driving the growth of the segment lies on the government. Further, the lack of investments in research and development to develop sustainable extraction technologies could decelerate the pace of sustainable mining..