Gudai-Darri solar farm, Pilbara

Harnessing renewables to decarbonise the Pilbara

Sun and wind will power one of the world's largest microgrids


Last updated: 28 April 2022

Steel is the most used metal in the world. It’s integral to everyday life due to its strength, longevity and versatility. It’s used in everything from household appliances like washing machines and fridges, all the way up to major infrastructure like bridges, skyscrapers and even the towers that support wind turbines.

Iron ore is the primary raw material used to make steel, and a significant part of our business involves mining and producing five iron ore products across 17 integrated mines in the vast and beautiful Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Producing this essential material uses a lot of energy, which we currently source mostly from non-renewable sources – gas to power our mines and processing plants, and diesel to run our trucks and trains.

And we know we must address this.

This means working with our people and partners to determine the best ways to replace gas and diesel with clean, green energy alternatives.

By working closely with Traditional Owners, local businesses and industry partners, we’re hoping to co-design a renewable energy solution that will decarbonise our operations in a way that also benefits the communities we operate in.

Our Pilbara Renewables project

We currently run one of the world’s largest microgrids at our Pilbara operations, underpinned by 480 megawatts (MW) of gas-based power capacity. This extensive grid currently contributes approximately 30% of our emissions.

In a region that’s blessed with ample year-round sunshine and strong winds at night, the Pilbara offers one of the best opportunities in the world to harness solar and wind power for energy generation.

Our Pilbara Renewables project is a major initiative, where we will work with our partners to establish an integrated network of solar and wind power sources.

Our goal is to develop one gigawatt (GW) of solar and wind power at our Pilbara operations, a capacity that’s roughly seven times bigger than WA’s largest solar farm.

Supported by large scale battery energy storage systems (BESS), this energy source will provide reliable and secure energy to the Pilbara.

But we face some big challenges to achieve this.

The Pilbara is remote, posing labour and cost challenges, and we need to make sure that any new infrastructure will be located to minimise impacts on the local environment and community.

We’re working with Traditional Owners, local communities and suppliers to develop innovative, creative and fit-for-purpose solutions.

We’re also focusing on environmental surveys and monitoring programs at preferred sites, and engineering work to help integrate our future wind and solar farms into our existing grid.

Our first step towards our bigger renewable energy project is a 34MW solar plant at our soon-to-be-completed Gudai-Darri mine. Due to come online this year, the solar plant will replace gas power to provide one-third of the mine’s electricity needs to power our fixed plants and infrastructure during peak periods.

Together with the new Tom Price battery electric storage system (BESS), the solar plant is set to reduce our annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by about 90,000 tonnes – the same amount produced by 6,000 homes in Australia every year.

The opportunity we have is to quickly decarbonise our power generation with mature and readily available renewable technology solutions so that we can transition away from our reliance on gas and diesel,”

- Pilbara Energy Hub Manager Shreya

“We know we need to act fast, but we need to ensure we do it the right way – by selecting locations in consultation with our stakeholders, minimising environmental and social impacts, and choosing options that will significantly reduce our emissions footprint.

“It is critical we form beneficial partnerships to not only successfully install and generate renewable energy in the Pilbara, but to also deliver positive outcomes for our local communities and stakeholders.”

When paired with the first phases of our fleet transition away from diesel, we project that the first 1GW of renewables will abate around one million tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to more than what 200,000 cars would emit in a year, and about a third of our total Scope 1 and 2 emissions across our Iron Ore business.

We know that we still have a long way to go to meet our target of halving our emissions by 2030.

But by working with local businesses, communities, and Traditional Owners, we’re hoping we can effectively harness natural and renewable energy sources for our Pilbara operations to accelerate our decarbonisation.

Gudai-Darri solar farm, Pilbara

‘Green steel’ – another promising decarbonisation possibility

Another way we’re working to decarbonise our business is by increasing our partnerships and investment in research and development so we can develop products that enable our customers – and industries – to decarbonise quicker.

One of these projects is a new technology that uses raw, sustainable biomass – a mix of agriculture by-products (ie wheat straw, corn stover, barley straw and sugar cane bagasse) and purpose-grown crops – instead of coking coal, to produce ‘green steel ’iron.

We’re also working to assess beneficiation processes in the Pilbara, so we can best produce a green steel feedstock.

So, while it’s early days, it’s fair to say we are keen to develop different technologies, as more than 70 per cent of Rio Tinto’s Scope 3 emissions are generated when our customers process our iron ore into steel.

Early tests have produced encouraging results so far, and we’re working with the University of Nottingham to further develop the process. The research is progressing.