By Graham Trusler, CEO Digby Wells Environmental 

January 2021 marked five years since the world’s leaders met in Paris and hammered out the terms of the Paris Agreement.  A landmark multilateral agreement which set global targets to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit global temperature increase in this century to well below 2, ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

Since then, quite rightly there has been significant focus on not only working out how we can meet these targets, but the just transition, that is how do make the reductions needed while also looking after those communities and people whose livelihoods are dependent on the fossil fuel industry. 

Expanding the focus

In South Africa to date most of the discussion and planning for a just transition, at least as reported in the media, has centered on dealing with coal mining areas and the coal fired power stations, and how.  Whilst this is good and proper, however I also think that we need to think outside the box and include other affected communities. One potentially exciting opportunity is our historic gold mining areas. By utilizing their land and existing infrastructure for solar could help South Africa reduce emissions and revitalize other areas which are already hurting financially.

An opportunity to restore luster to gold mining communities

Over the last decade South Africa’s gold mining industry has experienced a major downturn and more than 60,000 people have lost their jobs in the industry between 2009 and 2019. Communities in places such as Welkom and Virginia in the Free State Gold fields, Randfontein, Johannesburg and Krugersdorp in Gauteng, Stilfontein and Klerksdorp in the North West and Evander in Mpumalanga are a shadow of their former selves.

These older gold mining areas could be a great source of renewable energy and have the potential to come into production very quickly. Because they have:

  • Large areas of land available: In the form of disturbed mining land and tailings dams.  A lot of work has been done over many years on the final uses for gold “slimes dams” or tailings storage facilities “TSFs”.   The surface areas of most of these facilities is relatively flat and ideal for the installation of solar panels.
  • Readily available infrastructure: Existing legacy infrastructure means very little additional transmission infrastructure would need to be constructed if solar facilities were to be introduced. This reduces the time required for necessary environmental authorizations, land purchases and most of all  the capital costs associated with power line construction.
  • A steady supply of sunshine: South Africa’s gold mining areas are also in the Renewable Energy Development Zone – power corridors and close to areas designated for renewable energy.  That means they are in identified high potential solar areas.

  • They are also situated close to large urban areas: The proximity to urban areas means that transmission losses are minimized, and this would offset the fact that these areas are perhaps not in the exact optimal spots in terms of solar radiation.

Taken together these factors mean solar facilities could be installed at pace, meeting the desperate need for electricity in South Africa, while simultaneously reducing our emissions.  Further to this, with careful management and planning they could also help to deliver a just transition for South Africa by providing a source of new opportunities and jobs for local communities.

Operating mines could also benefit

The installation of solar could also deliver several benefits for operating gold mines.

Gold mining is an energy intensive industry and requires a steady supply of electricity.  Just as countries must reduce their GHG emissions, companies are also being asked to set emissions reductions targets, and report on their progress against target. Thus, developing on site solar could be an attractive option for many operators as after the initial capital outlay, they provide a cheaper, reliable and clean power supply for operations.

Other benefits for industry and in particular closed mines include; Ensuring the sustainable closure and management of historic TSFs. All TSFs also require some maintenance in the long term and no facility can be sustainably closed without having a subsequent land user able to manage and maintain such a facility.  For industry and the landowners, the installation of solar energy could provide the income necessary to ensure sustainable closure and management.  There are also safety benefits.  For example, some TSFs emit low levels of radiation.  Installing solar panels on top of the TSF is one way to safely utilize and manage the surface of the facilities and to ensure human exposure is limited and controlled.

The diagram below sets out what a potential sustainable closure of a TSF using solar would entail. 

  • Solar panels to provide energy and revenue
  • Vegetation to reduce dust, and trees to prevent wind-blown dust and ground water pollution and a potential supply of sustainable timber. 
  • Apiary and the production of vegetation to be used in the rehabilitation of other disturbed areas.