RIO TINTO Alcan will use solar power generated by a new $23.4 million project to provide electricity to its Weipa bauxite mine, the first time a mining company has adopted renewable energy in Australia.

The company’s general manager of Weipa Operations Gareth Manderson said the renewable energy would complement the site’s existing diesel generation, providing a reliable source of electricity with low maintenance requirements.

“We expect the use of solar power will reduce Weipa’s annual diesel consumption and its carbon dioxide emissions by around 1600 tonnes.”

With completion scheduled for late 2014, Rio Tinto Alcan will purchase electricity from the plant under a 15 year power purchase agreement.

The project will have an initial capacity of 1.7 megawatts (MW) with the potential to expand by an additional 5 MW after the commissioning of the initial phase.

The first phase of the project will generate sufficient electricity to offset up to 20 per cent of the daytime electricity demand, while reducing the diesel consumption for every megawatt hour of electricity produced, Rio Tinto Alcan said.

Eventually, the project is expected to generate electricity for the mine, processing facility and wider Weipa township.

The company will work with PV solar systems provider First Solar and solar power systems installer Ingenero on the project, which is due for completion in late 2014.

First Solar will supply its thin-film PV modules and other balance of system components, in addition to providing operation and maintenance services for the duration of the project.

The company’s vice president of business development for the Asia Pacific, Jack Curtis, said the solar PV components would complement base-load generation by providing electricity in times of peak demand and reducing the amount of diesel fuel used.

The project will also receive funding from the Commonwealth Government, with an initial commitment of $3.5 million from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to be followed by an allocation of up to $7.8m for the project’s second phase.

ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht said the second phase of the project, due for completion in 2017, would deliver an additional 5MW PV system.