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Vattenfall and Kaunis Iron team up for fossil-free mining

By Scarlett Evans 06 Apr 2021 (Last Updated April 6th, 2021 00:48)

Swedish state-owned power company Vattenfall has announced a partnership with Kaunis Iron for the development of fossil-free and fully electrified iron ore mining operations at Kauni’s Pajala site in northern Sweden. The partners will investigate the ways in which fossil fuels can be eliminated from the mine’s operations, as well as ways to electrify rock and passenger transport at the mine. Here, we take a closer look at the project, and Sweden’s overall energy landscape.

Vattenfall and Kaunis Iron team up for fossil-free mining
“The project is about to develop a fossil-free value chain for iron and steel production with fossil-free electricity and hydrogen,” said Magnus Kryssare. Credit: Vattenfall

Sweden is leading the charge in clean energy, topping the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transitions Index in its efforts to achieve the Paris targets, with over half (54%) of its power coming from renewable sources and a target of 100% renewable energy production by 2040.

With abundant forest and moving water resources, hydropower and biomass are the leading power sources for the country. However, wind energy is beginning to break major ground and Pajala is only the latest example of how this power source can be turned towards greening metals production.

Situated at the Swedish/Finnish border in the sparsely populated Norbotten region, the Pajala iron ore facility is located in an area that has become something of a hub for Sweden’s onshore wind power generation, already playing host to the wind power complex Markbygden. The largest project of its kind in Europe, Markbygden is expected to deliver approximately 2,000GWh of clean electricity a year and has been progressing unhindered by Covid-19 restrictions.

Sweden’s rapidly expanding wind power is placing it in good stead to gain a monopoly on green metals production, and indeed Pajala is Vattenfall’s third fossil-free metals production scheme. We spoke with the company on details of their work, and what place green metals production may have in the country’s energy future.

The power of wind

Globally, wind power has been the fastest growing source of renewable energy and capacity is likewise expanding in Sweden. In 2000, Swedish production totalled 0.5TWh, while for 2018 that figure rose to 16.6TWh. Today, there are about 3,600 wind turbines in Sweden, with 12% of the country’s electricity coming from wind power. Vattenfall press officer Magnus Kryssare says that the energy source is only expected to progress as Sweden moves towards its renewable targets.

“Wind power is growing in Sweden and is expected to grow further,” he says. “Also, hydropower and nuclear power play a vital fossil-free electricity role in the system, representing approximately 80% of the production, with wind representing about 17% last year. Fossil free electricity and/or renewable electricity are prerequisites for Sweden’s development, though the future exact energy mix is for Kaunis to comment.”

While Pajala is still in its relatively early stages, the companies have said future wind power projects in the area will play a crucial role in decarbonising operations – with some of these projects being Vattenfall’s own Käymävaara and Selkävaara. The company will also be providing charging infrastructure for Pajala.

“Our partnership is in its early phase, but Kaunis Iron and Vattenfall have a common interest in working strategically to create increased opportunities for fossil-free electrification of mining operations,” says Kryssare. “Vattenfall, Kaunis Iron, Volvo Trucks, ABB, and Wist Last & Buss have a unique pilot project to develop a sustainable logistics system for the future, where we will look at different solutions, including tests with a heavy electric truck.”

Indeed, in a press release on the project, the companies say an investigation is already underway into fossil-free transport solutions between the mine in Kaunisvaara and the trans-shipment terminal in Pitkäjärvi.

“The heavy electric truck test is unique,” Kryssare adds. “We want to know if it can function at 44°C below zero in northern Sweden.”

While exact details of the project remain slightly under wraps, there is a positive precedent for its success given Sweden’s already impressive status in the green metals landscape.

Green metal production in Sweden

This is only the latest example of Sweden forging ahead in its push for a cleaner future. While Sweden has one of the highest energy consumption-per capita in the world, carbon emissions are still low compared to other countries. One reason for this is its government’s progressive energy policies, specifically the Electricity Certificate System (ECS).

The ECS is a market-based support system for renewable electricity production that requires providers to source energy from renewables, while electricity retailers are required to buy a portion of green electricity within its supply mix. It is therefore unsurprising that the country has set itself ahead in developing green metals production.

Vattenfall has already cemented itself as a leader in Sweden’s green metals industry, with construction of its Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology (HYBRIT) started in 2018. A world first pilot plant for fossil-free steel, HYBRIT uses fossil-free energy and hydrogen instead of coke and coal, meaning emissions take the form of water instead of carbon dioxide. The project apparently has the potential to reduce Sweden’s CO2 emissions by 10% and Finland’s by 7% if implemented at full-scale.

“Our most advanced industry decarbonisation project is the fossil-free steel project HYBRIT,” says Kryssare. “The project is about to develop a fossil-free value chain for iron and steel production with fossil-free electricity and hydrogen, and thus more or less eliminate carbon dioxide emissions.”

The projected timeline for the scheme is to have fossil-free steel on the market in 2026, with the pilot plant in Luleå brought online in August 2020. Advances in grid infrastructure and battery technology are also expected from the Swedish company.

“Vattenfall also has a collaboration with Boliden for electrification of mines and smelters, which includes battery solutions aimed at supporting the electricity grid and optimising electricity consumption,” says Kryssare. “Boliden has mining and smelting operations in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Ireland, where the main sources of fossil emissions include diesel vehicles, process heat, and coke as a reducing agent.

“In all areas, fossil-free electricity can be an important part of the solution. As a technology-independent partner, Vattenfall can evaluate and enable the introduction of fossil-free technologies e.g. electricity and charging infrastructure for transport and mining.”

All this is evidence of the priority that renewable energy is taking in the Scandinavian country. While the nuances of just how green metals will be produced at Pajala, it is clear Sweden means business when it comes to decarbonising.

“We have high ambitions when it comes to not merely meeting the requirements already in place for sustainability. We have expressed our vision that we will supply the world’s most sustainable iron ore,” Kaunis Iron CEO Klas Dagertun said in a press release.

“The Swedish mining industry is facing major changes to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and develop climate-efficient and responsible mining operations.”