Everyone has heard of the energy transition. Sounds simple. Replace coal and gas-fired electricity generation with wind and solar. Add in some battery storage. Replace diesel and petrol engines with hydrogen power and electric vehicles, adding some new nuclear and green hydrogen and there you have it. Net Zero by 2050. But there’s a catch: the energy transition doesn't just need government subsidies, ESG investment, and a deliberate choice from consumers to move from fossil fuels to clean power. The energy transition can't happen without a mining transition, specifically, a metals transition. Future-facing metals such as lithium, cobalt, copper, graphite and nickel are all needed in ever greater quantities. As the bumper sticker says, “If you can't grow it, you have to mine it”. However, if you can't mine it in a “green” way, your energy transition is not going to be particularly effective. There is no point reducing carbon emissions from energy if you're just going to increase them in mining. 

So, what are the key players in the mining industry doing in light of this? Miners consume a huge amount of power at mine sites processing the ore. The obvious first step has been to use renewable energy at mine sites (where heavy machinery is used to extract ore and pulverise it, and then process it, all the time while moving great quantities of rock around). For example, we are aware of certain clients turning to solar power to support their mining operations. In addition, a significant amount of effort has also gone into the electrification of mining equipment to replace power supplied by diesel engines based at mine sites. Heavy equipment is being replaced so it can run on electric power or hydrogen. 

The rollout of renewable energy at mine sites for power supply purposes is advancing, and so the focus now moves to the next level down - electrifying the mining fleets and transport links which move the ore and processed metal from mining sites to ports, and from there into the supply chain. 

Of all the vehicles used across the mining transportation network, perhaps the most obvious targets for conversion to renewable energy are the vehicles that are used to transport materials around mining sites themselves. While some miners have simply purchased different trucks from existing manufacturers, others have instead chosen to collaborate with automotive companies to help develop new green energy vehicles which are more tailored to suit their needs. Newmont, for example, entered into a strategic alliance with heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar for the development and deployment of electric autonomous mining vehicles. There have also been collaborations between miners and alternative fuel providers. For example, heavy equipment at BHP’s Yandi iron ore mine is being switched over from diesel to hydrotreated vegetable oil fuel provided by BP. This can offer a helpful short-term solution to miners seeking to reduce their on-site carbon emissions while they plan more long-term future decarbonisation programmes.

Given the greater maturity and availability of the technology involved, the pursuit of greener mining transportation has been focused primarily on battery electric vehicles. However, some miners are choosing to deploy hydrogen fuel cell electric technology, particularly in relation to the journey that mined materials make once they leave their original mine site and are transported to port. While more costly, trucks using hydrogen fuel cells can offer the key advantage of faster refuelling. This consideration is central to the “regional renewable energy ecosystem” that Anglo American is currently collaborating with EDF Renewables to create, which will involve rolling out a fleet of hydrogen-fuelled trucks based on a prototype unveiled in May 2022 (itself the product of research and development partnerships with other leading renewable engineering companies). In an apt illustration of the circular nature of mining decarbonisation, the same kinds of platinum group metals which Anglo American’s trucks will be used to transport will increasingly be relied upon to build the fuel cells that power the trucks themselves.

Besides direct partnerships with established manufacturers, mining companies are also increasingly investing directly in early stage cleantech companies which have the potential to help reduce emissions across the mining value chain. Companies such as Rio Tinto and Vale have established venture capital funds for investing in clean energy startups, including those developing technologies with mining transportation applications. Another active player in mining venture capital is Fortescue, which has invested heavily in green hydrogen technology as an alternative zero carbon fuel source. 

One area which seems likely to be increasingly focused on by miners and mining venture capital relates to the final link in the mining transportation chain – the development of alternative shipping fuels. Once they have arrived at port, metals and ores need to be shipped to their final destination. Despite ships being more energy efficient than most land vehicles, global ocean freight transport accounts for a significant proportion of global carbon dioxide emissions. Finding ways of making the shipping of mined materials more sustainable by using alternative fuels such as liquefied natural gas, hydrogen or ammonia is an area which is receiving increased attention. For instance, Anglo American has announced a collaboration with a hydrogen fuelled shipping joint venture designed to cut its ocean freight emissions through the use of liquid organic hydrogen carrier. Fortescue meanwhile has committed to entirely decarbonising its shipping fleet through the use of green ammonia and has also recently acquiring a minority stake in Norwegian Hydrogen (a regional player in green hydrogen and green ammonia projects). Despite progress however, the technology in this area often remains relatively early stage and needs to contend with issues of economy and scalability. Startups working on solutions to these issues will be of growing interest to miners and miner-investors keen to get ahead of the curve.

Many mining companies understand the need to adapt to the energy sector’s mounting demand for future-facing metals (as well as the expectations of increasingly emission-conscious investors). For many, M&A-based strategies may be the best way to enable them to reap the full benefits of new technologies and to keep pace with the demands of the energy transition. Whether through joint ventures with renewable energy industry players or through the provision of capital to clean technology startups, investment will be vital. To rearrange the old adage, “If you can’t grow it, you have to buy it”.



M&A Outlook in focus

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