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Mining for a Brighter Future: How Renewable Energy and Mining Can Coexist in Southern Africa

By Steve Chikengezha


The power challenges in the Southern African region have dominated the news in recent times. The region has ambitious energy transition goals, a mammoth challenge  coupled with  rapid population growth, economic development, and mining industry expansion. This article, will explore some of the issues and opportunities that arise from this complex situation and how mining companies can achieve their set extractive targets whilst committing to sustainable mining practices that underpin clean energy objectives.

The Challenges:

Despite the commitment and desire by the different countries towards creating a regional power pool,  power demand continues to surpass our generation capacity. While renewable energy is good for the environment it can be an unreliable energy source. Hence questions have been raised on the practicality of the ambitious energy transition goals and demands to the region in that respect.

According to the World Bank, only 48% of the population in the region has access to electricity, and frequent power outages disrupt businesses and households. The region relies heavily on coal-fired power plants, which are aging, inefficient, and polluting. The region also has a huge potential for renewable energy, but faces barriers such as lack of financing, infrastructure, and policy support.

Pivotal role of the mining sector

One of the main drivers of power demand in the region is the mining sector, which is also a key source of revenue and employment for many countries. Mining is essential for the production of raw materials that are needed for renewable energy technologies, such as lithium, cobalt, copper, and rare earths. However, mining also consumes a lot of power and contributes to environmental degradation and social conflicts. Therefore, finding ways to make mining more sustainable and efficient is crucial for the energy transition.

Case Studies:

  •  Zimbabwe-  there has been a massive lithium rush which has increased pressure on the national grid as mining companies now draw more power from the grid.
  •  South Africa- the move to expand the output from the coal mines has been resisted by most of the energy transition pioneers whose main focus is reducing carbon emission and the use of fossil fuels.
  •  Mozambique- most areas have no access to power and there has been a drive towards electrification.

The juxtaposition between enhanced mining and the clean energy transition

Examples  on the need for power in Africa are in abundance, yet this pre-condition for access to capital, namely a commitment towards ESG and energy transition remains at the fore for investors coming into Africa.

At the Mining Indaba earlier this year, the issue was quite topical, and it appears there is now an uncommunicated consensus for Africa to draw up energy transition goals that are tangent to the realities on the ground. The reality is simply that the energy transition is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather a context-specific process that needs to take into account the realities and aspirations of each country and community. However, outside the challenges some of the main opportunities are:

  •  The abundant natural resources for renewable energy, such as solar, wind, hydro and     geothermal
  •  The regional cooperation and integration through the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP)
  •  The potential for economic diversification and job creation from renewable energy projects
  •  The role of mining as a catalyst for the energy transition
  •  Whilst not perfect , the willingness of African regulators to accommodate power producers and amend regulations is encouraging.

It is worth noting that most of the sustainable and renewable power projects demand raw materials which resultantly leads to an increase in the number of mines required to extract such materials. Robert Friedland, a prominent mining investor, recently stated that humanity has mined about 700 million tonnes of copper to date and will need as much copper in the next 22 years to foster the energy transition. However, most of the high-grade copper deposits are in Africa, which poses many challenges for extraction due to power supply and increase to comply with sustainability demands. Hence, the need to explore the different ways to ensure that Africa can meet the global demand for copper while also providing enough energy for its own people, its economic growth, and its environmental protection.

However, most would argue that Africa is rich in green battery minerals, that are essential for reducing carbon emissions. These minerals enable the production of clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles and solar panels. By supplying these minerals, Africa is playing a vital role in the global fight against climate change and the transition to net zero.

In conclusion

This speaks to the need to balance the demand for power and ensure that there is enough to meet domestic citizen demand, for governments to produce enough for their Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), all this while providing enough resources for mines to power the projects with foresight for the future.

Therefore, this leads us to a place where we all must accept that for us to see the change we desire, protect our environment, and achieve the transitional goals there must be leeway on African governments and experts to tailor the energy transition goals to their present realities.