If the rude Romans who exploited the Rio Tinto mine twenty centuries ago with state-of-the-art technologies, such as waterwheels or Archimedean screws, saw that the same thing is now done with state-of-the-art machines and with the incorporation of state-of-the-art solar panels that energy is obtained, they would not come out of their astonishment. But this is, without a doubt, the most notable aspect of the new life of this Huelva mine, crossed by an intense wine-colored river that gives it its name.
Copper is a fundamental metal for the energy transition. Electric vehicles and wind and solar generation require copper. There is no possible substitute.”
The almost alien landscape of this region has caught the attention of NASA itself, considering it the closest thing to what we could find on Mars. Here they have searched for – and found – bacterial life in an environment of extreme acidity. A metaphor for the stubbornness to break through in this environment that is now also reflected in the purpose of becoming the first Spanish mine with a self-consumption photovoltaic plant. A new stage that is marked by sustainability in a sector, such as mining, where energy consumption determines its economic viability and determines its carbon footprint.
The red treasure that drives the wired society
The Riotinto open pit mine, currently operated by Atalaya Mining, is a deposit that has estimated reserves of 197 million tons of copper ore. A fact that makes Riotinto a European point of reference in the production of the red metal, the third in order of consumption worldwide, only behind iron and aluminum.
The coaxial cables that connect the rooftop antenna to our televisions, the connectors with which we pass data from the video camera to the computer, and many computer components carry copper. “It is also a fundamental metal for the energy transition. Electric vehicles and wind and solar generation require copper. There is no possible substitute.” This is how Alberto Lavandeira, CEO of Atalaya Mining, told the biologist and disseminator Odile Rodríguez de la Fuente.
It is paradoxical to talk about such advanced technologies in the same scenario where for centuries different peoples have taken advantage of copper. Phoenicians, Tartessians, Iberians and Romans already exploited it more than twenty centuries ago. A century and a half ago, the English bought these mines for 92 million pesetas. His working method based on teleras would scandalize current environmental standards due to the enormous amount of sulfurous gases they emitted.
“The current extraction has nothing to do with that of centuries ago. We use state-of-the-art and controlled techniques and we recycle absolutely all the water. Only 15% of the water we consume is fresh, necessary to alleviate evaporation,” Lavandeira points out. And to this must be added an ambitious self-consumption plan for photoelectric energy generated in the mine itself.
The clean electricity that comes from the sun
The European Green Pact and the New Industrial Strategy impose the search for renewable energy alternatives to make mining viable in terms of sustainability. And that is what they have done at Riotinto, which will soon become the first Spanish mine with its own photovoltaic solar self-consumption facility, thanks to an agreement between Endesa X and Atalaya Mining. “There will be 75,000 solar panels capable of generating 50 megawatts. To make a similarity, it is the electricity consumed by a municipality of 14,500 inhabitants for 12 months. But, in this case, we are talking about clean energy,” says Samuel Jiménez Vara, head of energy efficiency and decarbonization at Endesa X in Andalusia.
Thanks to the photovoltaic plant, the mine will emit 40,000 tons of CO₂ less per year into the atmosphere, which would be absorbed by 240,000 trees in the same period of time
Thanks to this facility, the mine will cover a quarter of its energy consumption. “It will emit 40,000 tons of CO₂ less per year into the atmosphere. It is what 240,000 trees would absorb in that same period of time”, explains Jiménez Vara. Reducing the electricity bill by 25% also contributes to the viability of the mine.
And it is that the path towards decarbonisation is urgent: “The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said that it is time to act if we do not want to start digging our own grave”, declares Jiménez Vara in a clear reference to the fact that the The future of the industry – and of the planet itself – depends on reducing its environmental impact. “And what better example than a sector as electro-intensive as mining, showing that it is possible to make that energy transition to make us all aware that the change is viable and it is now.”
Boost for Minas de Riotinto and the entire region
After spending 15 years closed, Atalaya Mining brought this mining operation back to life with an ambitious industrial and environmental plan. This recovery has been a boost for this Andalusian region, with the creation of more than 400 direct and indirect jobs. The initial project contemplates exploitation for 13 years. Regardless of whether it is extended or not, the photovoltaic installation will remain in service in the town, generating energy for its neighbors.
Working in the mine has been a constant generation after generation in Riotinto and its surroundings, as Mª Carmen Hernández Moreno, an Environmental Technician at Atalaya Mining, recounts: “My grandparents worked in the mine, then my parents and now me”. Currently, her work in the Rio Tinto Project consists of trying to minimize the environmental impact of the mine as much as possible.
Currently, 68% of the workforce lives in municipalities of the Mining Basin, with which the economic impact of this mining project at the regional level is enormous. Even more so if one takes into account that approximately 90% are permanent employees. “All my life the mine has been the economic support of this area,” explains Hernández.
Labor stability and environmental sustainability define the present of a mine with a long past and, what is more important, with a long future.