Minnesota utility propose plan to help iron miners turn to electric trucks

August 18, 2020

Minnesota Power has proposed to state legislatures a plan to create a pilot project that would allow the utility to help mining companies in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range acquire electric haul trucks that would reduce the carbon output from the mines.

Minnesota Power sees tremendous upside in mine transportation electrification. Large industrial customers consume more than three-quarters of the utility’s electricity, likely the highest proportion of any power company in the country. By moving mines away from diesel and toward electric power, they grow demand in a region that has long faced a challenging resource-driven economy.

Frank Frederickson, vice president of customer experience, said the utility has been collaborating with mine customers on the idea. Currently, the mines are running fleets of primarily Caterpillar and Komatsu haul trucks that are a mix of electric and diesel-based energy or use a trolley system. The trolley approach allows the trucks to rely more on electricity but requires the installation of more infrastructure at the mine.

Energy News reported that studies suggest the heavy-duty trucks modestly reduce carbon emissions from mining. Sales information for the Caterpillar model the 795F AC claims a trolley system leads to a 90 percent reduction in diesel use. A pilot using electric Komatsu mine trucks in Finland showed as much as a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gases. But those numbers could grow as electric trucks replace diesel-powered vehicles.

A McKinsey & Co. report found large potential for battery electric vehicles in the heavy equipment market and greater investment in the nascent market. The total cost of ownership for heavy electrified vehicles is 21 percent less than a vehicle running on an internal combustion engine for some equipment types and their performance “is superior … in several aspects including better maneuverability and drivability, with instant torque and independent wheel control, and significant synergy potential with automation and connectivity.”

Electric mine trucks could also take advantage of Minnesota Power’s growing portfolio of renewable energy sources that next will soon generate half its electricity. “We’re looking to see what are the ways that we can take our advancements in renewable electricity with the advancements in heavy truck electrification to help our clients create a more economic but also a more environmentally friendly mine operation,” Frederickson said.

Electrifying mining trucks will not be easy or cheap. Only a handful of mines in the world have even begun to switch to electric trucks and many of those retrofitted existing vehicles, an attractive option for Minnesota mines, he said. The capital to invest in the truck may not be available because of the economy’s pandemic decline.

Minnesota Power brought up the proposal in a filing before the commission that offered a series of projects to help jumpstart the economy, including other transportation electrification projects.

In a letter of support for Minnesota Power proposal, Cleveland-Cliffs general manager Chad Asgaard wrote that mine truck electrification could offer benefits including “further operational efficiencies, and added reductions in fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Komatsu’s letter of support said the company had 160 electric mine trucks with trolley systems operating today, with requests for more than 100 units over the next three years. Signed by two executives, the letter says trolley operations reduce greenhouse gases, increase productivity and cut operational costs.

Komatsu’s pilot with a Finnish mine converted 13 diesel trucks to electricity, reducing carbon emissions by an estimated 9 percent over the life of the project. A Komatsu pilot in Sweden found that with a trolley system, electric models move faster than conventional trucks and decrease diesel by as much as 50 percent.

Minnesota Power plans to evaluate the truck mine market and its mining customers before investing in equipment from one of the vehicle manufacturers, Frederickson said. The pilot will study a plan for retrofitting existing mine trucks with electric equipment, a strategy allowing more vehicles to transition to electricity.

A successful pilot could transform the industry by capitalizing on other emerging fields, such energy storage that capture less expensive energy overnight for use later to power mine trucks. The utility’s industrial rate structure may have to change to encourage electrification, he said.



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