Mining and exploration review north of the 60th parallel

Farming Out Fuel Needs – Northern mine saves diesel and dollars with innovative wind farm

11 - 1G8A6242Diavik Diamond Mine, located in Lac de Gras, a remote area 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, is only accessible by an ice road for just eight weeks a year. So each winter, the entire yearly supply of diesel must be trucked in – all 50+ million litres.

But what happens when that ice road doesn’t freeze on time? The mining company was faced with this dilemma in 2006 when unseasonably warm temperatures caused the ice road to not be fully constructed when expected and it was prone to melt. Diavik quickly discovered that the mine’s reliance solely on diesel – which in 2006 had to be flown in to ensure mining could continue – needed to be addressed.

“We have the ice roads, so there’s only one way to get the fuel. There’s no natural gas up here in the north where we are; there’s no other hydro dams or anything like that,” explains Chris Bertoli, electrical and instrumentation superintendent for Diavik Diamond Mine.

The company looked at various renewable energy options to supplement the diesel, from solar to geothermal. The alternative finally selected was wind power due to the frequent and high winds (average 26 kilometres per hour) in the area.

Diavik worked closely with ENERCON in Germany to create wind turbines that could withstand the harsh Arctic climate, and in September 2012, a 9.2-megawatt, four-turbine wind farm began running. It’s the one of the world’s largest wind-diesel hybrid power facility and the first of its kind in such a remote, northern community.

11 - 1G8A6278With the wind farm’s hefty price tag of $31 million, Diavik won’t see a return on investment for eight years. As the mine will only be in operation for an additional two to three years (it’s expected to be fully excavated by 2023 or 2024), Diavik took a risk building the wind farm for such a small window of opportunity, but it’s one that is already paying off.

Over the past two years, the wind farm has reduced the mine’s dependency on diesel by about 10 per cent. According to Bertoli, the mine saved over $5 million and four million litres of diesel in the first year of operation. The second year, currently underway, is almost two months ahead of forecasted savings.

“It’s better to do something than do nothing based on current and projected fuel costs. If we can take 10 per cent of our reliance on diesel over the next 10 years – it’s a lot better than not doing anything,” says Bertoli, who also states that the amount of diesel needed by the mine will only increase as the company digs deeper and deeper. “The more we can do to offset those costs to the mine, the better.”

While the wind farm was ultimately a smart business decision, it’s one that has earned the company praise for its commitment to the environment. This innovative facility has earned several accolades, including the Canadian Wind Energy (CanWEA) 2013 Group Leadership award and the 2013 Environmental Excellence award from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (NAPEG).

While the wind farm isn’t going to provide Diavik with a windfall, it has helped decrease the mine’s dependence, and the subsequent bill, on diesel, while reducing the mining company’s carbon footprint. All vital elements to ensuring a strong and vibrant future for the mine, the north, and future generations.

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