Rio Tinto closes coal plant, shifts to renewables at Utah copper mine

Rio Tinto Kennecott. Image: Supplied

ASX listed mining giant Rio Tinto is walking the walk of its recent pledge to support renewables and climate action – and not prop up coal – by closing down the coal plant at one of its US copper mines and buying clean energy, instead.

The miner said last week that it would permanently close the 75 year-old coal power station at its Kennecott Utah Copper operations, which has been idle since 2017 as part of managing seasonal air quality and maintenance requirements.

In its place, Rio will purchase 1.5 million megawatt-hours of renewable energy certificates from Rocky Mountain Power, mostly sourced from its Utah portfolio, including wind power from Wyoming.

The company said the decision to permanently shut the coal plant was made over and above other options, including moving to gas – although natural gas is already used at Kennecott, alongside diesel power, for the mine’s fleet and processing facilities.

The shift is expected to cut the carbon footprint of the facility by as much as 65 per cent.

“Rio Tinto is committed to playing a part in the transition to a low-carbon economy,” said CEO J-S Jacques in comments last week.

“This move will significantly reduce emissions associated with our operations in Kennecott and allow us to offer customers copper, gold and silver with a reduced carbon footprint.

“The materials we produce, from infinitely recyclable aluminium and copper used in electrification to borates used in energy-efficient building materials and our higher grade iron ore product, all play a part in this transition to a low-carbon economy,” he said.

“Rio Tinto will continue to work with partners and customers to develop new sustainable solutions.”

As noted above, the decision in Utah follows the company’s declaration last month that it would support renewable energy and climate action, and “publicly argue against” government subsidisation of coal power.

The company, which no longer mines coal, said in an industry associations and climate change statement that it recognised global warming as “a critical global challenge,” and called on industry associations to join it, or lose its support.

Like many other major companies across every industry, Rio is no doubt also discovering that renewable energy, while vital to the challenge of halting dangerous climate change, is also a much cheaper source of electricity than fossil fuels, and infinitely more palatable to shareholders.

In Australia, the company switched on a 1.7MW solar PV plant at its Weipa bauxite mine and processing facilities in north Queensland back in late 2015, which was – for its time – the largest solar array to support an Australian mining operation.

This was easily beaten by a 10.6MW solar plus battery plant at the DeGrussa copper and gold mine in remote WA, which secured a PPA with Origin Energy.

For Rio, the move to buy renewables in Utah – and to permanently shutter the mine’s coal plant – looks to have also been motivated by a community and local government-based push to improve air quality in the state.

“Rio Tinto’s decision to retire their power plant is a win-win for our community. Their decision will simultaneously support Utah’s shift toward a low carbon economy and improve air quality in the Salt Lake Valley,” said Utah governor, Gary Herbert.

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