The electric slide at Iron Range mines

An electric-powered truck like this can haul 360 tons of material and can be outfitted to run autonomously or along electric trolley cables. (PHOTO: Komatsu)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

History tends to repeat itself here on the Mesabi Iron Range. Whether it’s labor practices, politics, or economic cycles, the new often bears striking resemblance to the old. But I honestly did not think I’d see the word “trolley” come back.

It has. And it means a lot more than a tourist jaunt around the grounds of the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

The trolleys I’m talking about are much bigger than the old Mesaba Interurben Railway cars from the early 20th Century. They’re larger than a downtown building and might haul 260 tons of iron ore. These trolleys are all electric and they could be run remotely with the right technology. Anyone looking would call them trucks.

Last week, Minnesota Power proposed legislation that would fund a pilot project with the industrial equipment manufacturer Komatsu. Their aim: to explore the feasibility of all-electric haul trucks in Mesabi Range taconite mines.

This story was reported two weeks ago by the journal Mining Engineering, Minnesota Public Radio, and several other news outlets.

The power company has plenty at stake in the discussion. Minnesota Power is uniquely positioned as an industrial power supplier, with a whopping 2/3 of its production going toward big electron gobblers like Iron Range taconite plants. So their enthusiasm may be easily explained. However, the effort has some tentative support from the mining industry, too.

Electrical-powered equipment in the mines is nothing new. Already the big shovels and drills run off of power supplied by heavy duty cables connected to power stations throughout the mine. Early adoption of such technology actually began in the 1920s. Electric machines saved time and money from refueling, reduced noise, and the risk of fires and explosions.

But trucks have remained at least partially diesel-powered, mostly because battery technology couldn’t maintain a long enough charge to last a full shift. The kind of truck Minnesota Power wants to try can run on newer batteries, but is most effective when run off of an electric cable system. That’s what makes these trucks “trolleys.” Just like a San Francisco street car runs under an electric wire suspended over the road, these rigs would follow a cord that hugs the mine roads between the pit and processing plant.

There’s a lot of work to do and, not surprisingly, the parties involved will be asking for taxpayer money to subsidize some of the research. Nevertheless, this kind of development is darn near inevitable.

The mines of northern Minnesota will be all electric in the lifetimes of most of the current workforce. The benefits will be several-fold. Yes, there will be a measurable improvement in carbon emissions, but that’s not what sells the notion to an enviro-skeptical industry. The real benefit will be reduced cost, and the biggest cost savings will be in automating the necessary technology.

In other words, not only will the trucks follow an electric grid, but the driver will guide the machine by computer and camera from a control room.

Automated trucks are not yet viable in this region for several reasons, winter weather conditions chief among them. But the size and predictable routes of haul trucks ensure that they will be automated eventually, just as they are at most large new mines around the world.

Fighting automation like this will get you about as far as it did John Henry. Once the investment is made there is no turning back. And it’s not all bad; such operations are typically safer and, in places like Sweden, miners like working inside come January.

But while companies test the technology, here’s a question for the rest of us. Are we preparing the workforce for this change? Will we teach our children automation, transportation logistics, and computer coding with the same voracity as we lavish political support upon mining companies?

Entering the knowledge economy will serve both phases of the Iron Range’s future — the part with mining, and the part when mining is finished. That’s even more important than the trucks or, if you prefer, the trolleys.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Cost to whom. ? Oh the owners. How many will lose jobs potentially ? but I guess the bigger question that is muted by the overwhelming noise is what do we do nationally and internationally for people who are “out of work” due to automation ? This questiion is nowhere being answered by the current crop of politicians at either the state or national level. And the orange bobble head in dc would like label these people losers for being out of work even when the work is now automated. Maybe Andrew Yang had a point. I have just recently reaquainted myself with wrtiter who’s books I used while teaching. This is a great book that came out after I retired that I surely would have used. It has sample pages in the link.

  2. The trolley technology for production trucks has been around at least since the 60’s for main routes with long uphill loaded grades. Hibtac might be a very good application if the economics work out. The basic technology was used in the 30’s in Duluth for electric busses to replace street cars.

    Using batteries for short runs from the end of power to the shovel is an interesting concept, maybe with improved battery technology. Someday…

    Autonomous trucks have been around since the 90’s but, as you say, our weather complicates things with ice and snow on the roads. It’s mainly been used in places like Australia where labor (labour?) is very expensive and weather isn’t a factor.


  3. Then there’s the source of the electricity. Minnesota Power is still a majority coal fired utility. So we are to some extent looking at replacing diesel fueled trucks with coal fueled trucks. Maybe that will change someday too.

  4. Keetac uses an electrically powered conveyor belt to haul the ore out of the pit. That way you don’t have to haul a ton of truck out of the pit for every ton of ore hauled out.

  5. Thanks for the comments, B. You always know your history. I knew that this technology wasn’t new. (I’m coming across references to electric conveyances and equipment in the 1920s, and I’m told it goes back even farther than that). I agree that electric conveyor belts will be part of the Range’s future. I’ve long assumed that Hibtac and Keetac will merge someday (ownership TBD) and if so could run off one plant and a system of conveyance. I think there’s some room for that in the Quad Cities someday, too.
    And yes, electricity isn’t magic. It has to come from somewhere. I suppose one can take heart that MP is buying a lot more hydro from Canada (using their fancy new transmission line that runs near our house) but a lot of their baseload is coal, as you point out.

  6. The issue with MN Power and coal has to do first with the existing infrastructure — the coal plants already are there, and require no added investment to operate, as opposed to investments in transmission lines and renewable generating capacity, or even with retrofitting to switch to natural gas, all of which carry big front end investments.

    But the main advantage of the coal plants in MP’s business plan is the on/off feature. Contracts with providers in Canada or elsewhere or wind and solar plants continue to produce power that has to be transmitted and then resold during the frequent down times, Any new mining projects will magnify that problem. The coal plants, already paid for as I said, can be shut down easily and started again when needed, Any inventory of coal just rests in existing stacks on the property. Responding to the extreme cycles of the mining industry, whether for iron or for non-ferrous metals, is simple and carrying costs minimal.

  7. The arrival of “drone” equipment on the Range is just a matter of time. Trolley models are simple, but driverless trucks and remotely controlled shovels are in the wings as well. The truck operators can handle several trucks — up to five in some pilot projects — at the same time, all from a remote site, and the shovels can be operated remotely. Operators can be far away in lower labor cost markets, or even places like India. The only work that has to be local are maintenance workers to service the machines, who can be shared by several mines at the same time, two or three people per shift manning observations towers with kill switches to stop operation if a problem occurs, and security guards. Ice and snow is not that significant a problem — local people will probably do plowing and sanding, but remote operators will still be able to run the machines. If we can bomb a wedding in Afghanistan using a drone operator in Idaho, we can certainly drive a mine truck easily enough.

    The issue that stands in the way is the cost of the equipment. As long as the cost of operators is less than the amortized cost of equipment, the jobs are probably safe. But for new operations purchasing equipment from scratch, the financial considerations may soon favor drone operations, if they do not already.

    Equipment operation and truck driving is one of the last bastions of good paying work for people without technical training. Technology is coming for those jobs sooner than we might hope.

  8. I’ve been to plenty of mines that have mobile crushers near the mining activity and conveyance several miles from that point to the processing plant. It is a little bit of a surprise that there isn’t more of that on the Iron Range. I agree that it is likely to happen when someone decides to keep the Hibbtac processing plant open after the Hibbtac ore runs out. Will still need truck drivers to go from shovel to the mobile conveyor dump pocket though. I don’t believe whether the haul trucks are powered by electricity or diesel has any impact on whether or not the truck needs a driver however…

  9. I saw an iron mine in Brazil where the shovel dumped directly into a mobile crusher. From there to the plant it was all conveyor. Same with a limestone quarty in Texas.

    The technology is there, has been for decades. The main hinderance in Minnesota since the 80’s is scraping together enough money in competition with an overload of other projects at the various steel company owners with better rates of return and limited capital available.

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