Future mining workforce critical to energy transition

Transitioning global energy systems to renewables in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will be impossible without a massive ramp up in mining.

In recent evidence to a federal parliamentary inquiry, Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable said that by 2030, the world would 50 new lithium mines, 60 new nickel mines and 17 new cobalt mines just to meet demand for energy storage.

Then there’s the mineral requirements for things like solar panels, wind towers, turbines and electrolysers, as well as new transport and transmission infrastructure required as a part of the energy transition.

This huge increase for minerals is driven by more than just the volume of renewable generation and storage required.

In its 2022 paper, The Role of Critical Minerals in Energy Transition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) explained that it’s about the composition of these new technologies, as well.

According to the IEA, a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired power plant.

Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has increased by 50 per cent, as the share of renewables has risen.

Obviously, this future demand presents a huge opportunity for Australia.

We are home to the world’s largest reserves of nickel, as well as the world’s second largest reserves of lithium and cobalt, respectively.  This is in addition to having the world’s largest reserves of iron ore and second largest reserves of bauxite.

But, having the workforce to get these minerals out of the ground, processed and to market may be the biggest obstacle to seizing the opportunity these natural resources present.

According to the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA, there are current and emerging shortages in many mining occupations, including engineers, metallurgists, surveyors, geologists, electricians, fitters, maintenance planners, welders and drillers.

And, with completions in many related courses plummeting, there is a significant emerging disconnect between the careers young Australians want, and the future skills needs of the industry.

From a peak of 333 mining engineers graduating across Australia in 2015, only 104 completed courses in 2020, according to a recent report by the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM).  Similarly, the Australian Geosciences Council recently released data showing that national undergraduate enrolments in geosciences had fallen from a peak of 3,230 in 2013 to 1,900 in 2021.

AusIMM attributes the drop off in the number of young people pursuing mining careers, in part, to perceptions of the industry’s performance on environmental and social issues, and the growing expectations of young Australians in these areas.  They also identified a lack of public awareness of the importance of mining to the energy transition as a contributing factor.

This is supported by the results of a recent survey of Gen-Z students by BDO.  When respondents were asked what mining companies should focus on to attract young people into the industry, the most prominent suggestion was explaining the importance of mining to the clean energy revolution much better.

The survey also found 59 per cent of students wanted a career that positively impacted climate change, with 66 per cent of students wanting a career that positively impacted local communities. 

Given the growing chasm between its future skills needs and the career preferences of young Australians, the mining industry needs to work a lot harder to tell its story.

Central to this story needs to be the positive environmental and social impact the industry will have in addressing climate change through the global delivery of the energy transition.  But, the industry also needs to show that it is delivering this with high environmental, social and governance standards (ESG), which includes the decarbonisation of its own activities as quickly as possible.

If the industry can understand the importance of this approach to attracting the human capital it will need to meet the mineral demand of the energy transition, then their opportunities are enormous.  If not, then those opportunities will be lost.  But, more importantly, the energy transition we need to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will have next to no chance of occurring.

This article also appeared in The West Australian newspaper.


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