The race for renewable fleet dominance in the Pilbara

Company News

by Glenn Dyer

Now for the Pilbara battle of the trucks: BHP (ASX:BHP) and Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) are commencing joint trials on battery-electric trucks, while smaller rival Fortescue has already initiated trials with a green hydrogen-powered vehicle.

BHP will trial trucks from Caterpillar of the US and Komatsu of Japan, while Fortescue’s truck is from Liebherr Mining, the German-Swiss giant based in Switzerland.

In 2021, Rio Tinto and BHP collaborated with both Caterpillar and Komatsu to support the development and validation of their prototype battery-electric haul trucks. The trucks included in the latest trials are based on these prototypes.

Kerry Stokes’ Seven Group Holdings is the Caterpillar distributor in WA and will work closely with BHP; Rio will use a Komatsu truck, while Fortescue’s truck is already in trials, having operated off hydrogen for the first time last week.

In fact, Fortescue’s decision to purchase emission-free trucks from Liebherr in 2022 and early 2023 led to a significant falling out between Fortescue, its chair and major shareholder Andrew Forrest, and Kerry Stokes and Seven Group Holdings, which controls Westrac, the major Australian Caterpillar distributor.

Fortescue has already conducted trials of electric trucks at its mines.

The transition to a renewable fleet will take a considerable amount of time. BHP and Rio stated in a joint statement on Monday that their trials will last two to three years, possibly longer.

They say they will collaborate with Caterpillar and Komatsu to conduct independent trials of the battery-electric haul trucks, including testing of battery, static, and dynamic charging systems, to assess performance and productivity in the Pilbara iron ore mining setting. As part of the collaboration, two Cat 793 haul trucks will be trialled from the second half of 2024, and two Komatsu 930 haul trucks tested from 2026 at mine sites in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Caterpillar and Komatsu will each provide one truck to both BHP and Rio Tinto for these trials. BHP will trial the Caterpillar trucks, while Rio Tinto will trial the Komatsu trucks. Outcomes of the trials will be shared between BHP and Rio Tinto.

These trials represent the first stage of battery-electric haul truck testing at BHP and Rio Tinto’s Pilbara operations.

In June 2022, Fortescue and Liebherr established a partnership for the development and supply of zero-emissions mining haul trucks. Fortescue stated in a recent announcement that it anticipates the final fleet will also comprise a large number of support Heavy Mobile Equipment from various suppliers, with the vast majority incorporating a Fortescue-developed power system.

Fortescue has already commenced taking delivery of the first T 264 diesel-electric trucks, which will be converted to zero-emissions technology before the end of the decade.

All three companies have already invested billions of dollars in developing autonomous driving trucks and other mining equipment, such as drills, and the eventual development and expansion of these renewable fleets will entail another significant capital cost, dominating annual capital expenditure spends from the latter years of this decade onwards.

Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer has been a finance journalist and TV producer for more than 40 years. He has worked at Maxwell Newton Publications, Queensland Newspapers, AAP, The Australian Financial Review, The Nine Network and Crikey.

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