The mining sector could be an important driver of energy storage in Australia, say experts.

Sandfire Resources is one mining company set to benefit from the trend. Sandfire was approached by juwi Renewable Energy to develop and operate a 10.6-megawatt solar facility at its DeGrussa copper mine in Western Australia that will be going live in March next year. The solar project will be paired with a 6-megawatt/1.5-megawatt-hour lithium-ion battery, with a total cost of about USD$30 million.

Mike Spreadborough, CEO of Sandfire Resources, says the solar-plus-storage system will save his company’s mine 30 percent on fuel costs immediately, “and more in the future.”

A significant amount of savings will come from reducing fuel transport costs. At present, the remote operation relies on diesel that is shipped 750 miles from Perth.

This is one of three major storage projects in the pipeline, all supported by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. ARENA has pledged about $300 million for the development of remote energy storage pilot projects as part of the Regional Australia’s Renewables (RAR) initiative.

The mining sector is well-positioned to help drive non-residential storage adoption in the country, said GTM storage analyst Brett Simon, author of a new report on Australia's burgeoning storage market.

Mining is a major economic driver in Australia, accounting for 8 percent of GDP and more than half of the nation’s export revenue, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Most mines are in remote locations, largely off the grid and reliant on diesel generators to power their operations. Gensets installed at mines have a total capacity of roughly 1.2 gigawatts.

Energy needs can make up as much as 30 percent of total mine operating costs, according to the Australian Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), so it’s not surprising that these remote operations are increasingly investigating alternative energy solutions, including solar-plus-storage.

According to Sandfire, the CEFC is providing up to $11 million for its solar-plus-storage project, and French renewables business Neoen is contributing nearly all the rest. Sandfire says its cash contribution to the project will be less than $1 million.

The French company will own the solar-plus-storage installation, with Sandfire will buy the energy via a power-purchase agreement. “Energy production is not one of Sandfire’s core activities, so this arrangement is ideal for us,” said Spreadborough.

Another solar-plus-storage project that should benefit from the $300 million in RAR funding will be First Solar's installation at Rio Tinto’s Weipa bauxite mine in Queensland. Scheduled for 2017, this project aims to supply energy to at least 20 percent of the homes in the area, as well as to the mine.

Also under discussion is a project that would use vanadium flow batteries with solar at TNG’s Mount Peake mine in the Northern Territories, which, fittingly, mines vanadium.

To date, no mining operation is considering replacing diesel generation entirely. But including some solar and storage to diversify the generation base has advantages beyond fuel savings.

In the case of the DeGrussa mine, the battery system retains power for around 15 minutes and is employed to ensure there is smooth, uninterrupted power to keep the mine’s ventilation and grinding mills running optimally.

In other types of mining, power is often needed in brief concentrated bursts during heavy lifting operations. Here too, storage can be an added advantage by delivering pulses of concentrated energy when needed, saving damaging strains on the diesel genset installed base. Solar-plus-storage, lacking the moving parts of a diesel generator, can actually be more reliable and dependable as a power source.

“As we prove the economic case for adding solar-plus-storage, mining operations in Australia and beyond will take notice," said Spreadborough.

Mining is not the only sector looking to benefit from storage in Australia. As the Australian Energy Storage Market report notes: “The economics of solar-plus-storage are already viable in a significant number of cases, a trend which GTM Research expects to continue as the cost of non-residential solar-plus-storage systems continues to decline.”

GTM Research's Brett Simon cited Australian mobile base stations as another potential niche for storage.

Zinc-bromide flow battery producer Redflow already has plans to enter that market and has tested its ZBM battery with solar. The company claims this reduces diesel generator run time, cutting down on both fuel consumption and maintenance costs.

Although not yet commercially available, it’s yet another indicator that there’s a lot more to Australian solar-plus-storage than the residential market.