October 2014

Transforming wind into fuel

Glencore to install hydrogen fuel-cell storage system at Raglan mine

By Bernard Simon

If all goes according to plan, next spring Glencore’s Raglan nickel-copper mine in northern Quebec will become the first mine in the world to cut its diesel consumption by linking a wind turbine to a hydrogen fuel-cell storage system.

At the moment, only part of the project is complete. Raglan mine and its partners finished construction of a single 80-metre-high windmill at the mine on August 7 and connected the turbine to the local power supply in early September. A mine spokeswoman says the first 120-hour run-test, from Sept. 2 to 8, was successful.

The windmill was supplied by Germany’s Enercon, one of the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturers. An Enercon team as well as Raglan employees and Tugliq, a Quebec City-based energy firm that owns the system, assembled the windmill on site.

The next step is energy storage. Four shipping containers with flywheels, a battery system and other components of the storage system are due to arrive at the mine towards the end of the year. But it is unlikely to be installed for several months due to harsh winter conditions at the mine.

The project involves connecting the wind turbine to an electrolyzer, which will pass wind-generated electricity through water, splitting the H2O molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The plan is to store the hydrogen in two six-metre-long compressed-gas reservoirs – similar to horizontal propane storage tanks – and then use it to generate electricity from a fuel cell.

The Quebec government has contributed more than a quarter of the project’s $22.6 million cost as part of its plan to spur economic development in the remote northern part of the province. The remaining $16 million has come from the federal government, Glencore and Tugliq. Once in operation, the mine will pay Tugliq for power from the wind system.

Hydrogen fuel cells have long been hailed as a promising source of cheap renewable energy. But researchers have struggled to translate the benefits into commercially viable projects.

“There are not that many green-energy technologies that you can use to store electricity,” said Laurent Abbatiello, principal vice-president and chief financial officer at Tugliq, who has coordinated its construction.

Up to now, fuel cells have been viewed mainly as a potential replacement for the internal combustion engine in motor vehicles. For example, California-based Vision Industries has installed fuel cells in its Tyranno heavy-duty truck, currently in use at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The zero-emission truck has a range of 200 miles on a single tank of hydrogen.

Kevin Harrison, a research engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), noted that fuel cells are an efficient medium for converting hydrogen to electricity, especially when relatively low heat (60-80 C) is required. Other advantages include no moving parts and quick recharging.

But hydrogen also presents some serious challenges. It takes up a lot of space relative to the energy it generates. It is also not necessarily the most efficient option. “Since you have to produce the hydrogen and then make electricity again through a fuel cell, it has a lower round-trip efficiency compared with other storage technologies like batteries and pump hydro,” said Harrison.

Even so, he added, “with inexpensive renewable electricity, energy storage can be a very compelling economic possibility.”

Raglan is not the first mine in Canada’s North to harness wind as a way of cutting diesel costs. Four turbines at the Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories, a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Dominion Diamond Corp., already generate about 10 per cent of that mine’s power needs.

Diavik estimates the wind farm will displace five million litres of diesel fuel this year, which is equal to a savings of $6 million out of an annual $70 million diesel bill. But Diavik has no storage system and uses the wind-generated power as it is being produced.

Raglan’s plans are more ambitious. “The thing with wind is that it’s not stable,” explained Abbatiello. “One day it blows, one day it doesn’t. And sometimes even the way it blows changes within a minute. The storage devices are meant to supply a stable energy level even if there is not wind all the time.”

The Raglan mine pilot project has a design capacity of about three megawatts, enough to save the equivalent of about 2.5 million litres of diesel fuel a year, or five per cent of the mine’s consumption. The mine currently uses 60 million litres of diesel a year, with fuel making up one-fifth of its total operating budget.

But if all goes well, Abbatiello foresees the day when a full-blown wind farm with multiple turbines will generate nine to 12 megawatts of electricity, equal to nearly half of the mine’s needs.

Kristan Straub, Raglan mine’s vice-president, estimates that a wind project of that scale could slash the mine’s diesel consumption and overall energy costs by 40 per cent.

The first two hydrogen reservoirs will collectively store electricity for about 20 hours, but the addition of more could considerably extend the storage period.

“If results are positive, we hope that our system will serve as a model that could be installed in diesel-dependent communities, and then benefit all of Nunavik (the northern region of Quebec),” said Straub.

Abbatiello is confident that the wind-to-hydrogen system will perform well: “We know that the technologies work in other applications. This is the first time that everything has been combined. So the complexity is how to integrate, control and command all those components.”

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Whitehorse workshop sheds light on Yukon First Nations’ agreements with mining companies

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