National Geographic Society Newsroom

Climate Resilience from Down Under: Scaling Australia’s Mines and Clean Energy

Guest article by Joseph Kirschke In January 2011, the irony facing Australia’s massive thermal coal exports was intense as the unseasonable monsoon rains that battered its shipping facilities to a standstill. This year brought more extreme storm-related power outages to the other side of the continent and, with them, Elon Musk’s Tesla to launch the...

Guest article by Joseph Kirschke

Solar-hydro farm development on an old gold mine property in Kidston, Queensland, Australia. Photograph courtesy of Genex Power

In January 2011, the irony facing Australia’s massive thermal coal exports was intense as the unseasonable monsoon rains that battered its shipping facilities to a standstill. This year brought more extreme storm-related power outages to the other side of the continent and, with them, Elon Musk’s Tesla to launch the world’s largest lithium battery.

But a quieter, more compelling narrative is brewing down under. Fast-emerging technology, commercial demands and public opinion are underscoring how the mining industry of one of the earth’s most geologically-rich nations can help guide global investors into unlocking COP21’s $13.5 trillion requirements.

The same firm which attached a wind farm to Tesla’s project, France’s Neoen, for instance, also plugged a 34,080-panel solar installation into Sandfire Resources’ copper-gold mine last year. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles northwest, Rio Tinto and Arizona’s First Solar are demonstrating how a bauxite mine can economize with 18,000-panel solar panels – while sharing surplus electricity with a nearby township.

Similar off-grid renewable energy distribution, or micro-grid systems, have jumped 41 percent worldwide since 2015. This means that, as elsewhere, Australia’s power-hungry mines can be infrastructure-linked – or anchor-tenant – solutions for the world’s 1.2 billion people without electricity – and most vulnerable to climate change.

While pursuing renewables after building up its coal and iron ore Japan’s Mitsui, for one, is also positioned to scale Australia’s off-grid energy – having already joined an Indian firm to build 1,000 micro-grids in Africa – replicating success in South Asia. Royal Dutch Shell, currently developing its own mini-grids through its $1 billion New Energy division, recently joined in with a proposed 250 Megawatt (Mw) solar farm in Queensland’s fabled coal country.

Given Australia’s historic dependence on oil and gas, alongside the economic importance of its coal industry, national politicians are steadfast in embracing fossil fuels. But they do so in opposition to growing business and popular support. On the other hand, mining firms, which already consume 10 percent of national power supplies amid soaring energy prices, are desperate for alternatives to the status quo.

Korean-owned Sun Metals Corp. is proactively pushing for pro-renewable regulation pending a 100 Mw solar plant near Townsville, Queensland. Others publicly bucking the trend at the federal level include Whyalla Steelworks, one of the nation’s largest energy users, with plans to green South Australia mines – as well as steel mills and industrial sites in Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland beyond.

Australia’s eclectic geology and 60,000 abandoned mines offer great possibilities, too. These include a $1 billion solar-hydro farm at Kidston, a former gold mine, big enough to power 140,000 homes – at one of 22,000 potential hydropower sites nationwide. This project mirrors the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) more advanced and highly successful RE-Powering America’s Land program.

The Kidston site is being integrated into a larger system with strategic transmission lines to further distribute its power supplies – echoing other countries where mines are using alternative energy.

The diverse output of Australia’s 400 operating mines, encompassing iron ore, copper, nickel zinc, gold, silver, diamonds and rare earths, among numerous other metals, minerals and fuels also make them ideal material investments to reduce greenhouse emissions – as production becomes increasingly responsible. A majority of these have clean tech applications, especially graphite, cobalt and the world’s greatest reserves of lithium – elemental to a surging global demand for batteries and electric vehicles.

Australian lithium is particularly pure, and especially attractive to China, home to half the world’s 20 battery mega-factories. U.S. chemical firm Albermarle Corp., is also co-financing what is reportedly the industry’s highest-grade lithium project with a Chinese mining firm. Meanwhile, Santiago-based SQM, the world’s largest producer of the reactive metal, just purchased a 50 percent stake in Kidman Resources’ mine in Western Australian mine (Chile is the second-most significant lithium producing nation.)

Batteries have other critical components, however, and BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining firm, is placing its bets accordingly by increasing nickel sulfate sales pending a ramp-up in copper output. Indeed, as the Melbourne-based BHP  closely eyes renewables, such storage advances are important for all miners concerned over the intermittency of solar, wind and other natural resources – not least following crippling power outages at BHP’s own Olympic Dam mine this year.

Now, more than ever, investors and governments struggling to reduce industrial carbon emissions can realize responsible returns in mining companies going greener, along with the minerals and technology they produce: That is, a commodity rebound from China and its 1.3 billion people – alongside a $4 trillion infrastructure initiative spanning 60 nations – is supporting a momentum to expand current mines and develop new ones worldwide.

Clean tech providers already working in Australia and at mines elsewhere see this as a watershed moment for the mining industry – one filled with unsung, yet risk-averse, pioneers: Bigger budgets, they note, will enable a cross-sector, project-level flexibility paving the way for technical transformation to incorporate wind turbines, solar panels – and the long-term energy savings they provide – thereby creating a “snowball” effect.

By using 11 percent of global energy, our planet’s mines, including Australia’s, are poised to be the centrifugal force needed to accelerate economic prosperity across the developing world, while addressing the urgency of climate change on an industrial scale.  It’s one we can’t afford to ignore.

Joseph Kirschke is a Consultant for the Clean Energy-Mining Exchange, an initiative working to accelerate clean energy use by mines which share electricity with local communities. The Exchange is sponsored by RESOLVE, a leading Washington non-profit

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.