£330m purchase of sole aluminium smelter in UK opens door for industry
A bright new industrial future for the Scottish Highlands was heralded today (Monday 19th Dec) as Liberty House and SIMEC - both members of the GFG Alliance - completed a £330million deal with Rio Tinto to buy Britain's last remaining aluminium smelter at Fort William in Lochaber, together with the iconic hydro-power plants at Fort William and Kinlochleven, and associated estate lands.
During a visit by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing to celebrate the successful Scottish Government-backed sale, the new owners announced plans for a further £120million investment to upgrade equipment and establish an aluminium wheel manufacturing facility at the site. This will generate up to 300 jobs directly and hundreds more in the supply-chain.
Liberty aims to protect the existing 170 jobs in Lochaber and progressively expand metal manufacturing and downstream engineering there; eventually bringing up to 2,000 direct and supply-chain jobs to the heart of the Highlands and adding around £1 billion to the local economy over the next decade.
The acquisition includes the hydro-electric station and aluminium smelter at Fort William, the neighbouring hydro-plant at Kinlochleven and over 100,000 acres of estate land which hosts the water catchment area, including the foothills of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.
Liberty – under the banner "Liberty British Aluminium" - will add substantial extra value to the production of aluminium by integrating the smelter with a new engineering and downstream manufacturing facility.
SIMEC will operate the hydro plants within its growing UK portfolio of renewable power assets. A key customer for SIMEC Lochaber Hydro will be the smelter, which is an intensive user of electricity to process alumina into aluminium.
This is one of the largest single investments yet made by the global GFG Alliance businesses. The acquisition marks a major step towards the delivery of GFG’s plan to forge a competitive and sustainable metals and engineering sector in the UK by integrating the supply chain and particularly by powering these industries with SIMEC’s renewable energy production.
The GFG Alliance sees the Lochaber aluminium operation as fitting strongly into Liberty’s growing automotive industry focus. Liberty is already an important components vendor to the top UK vehicles manufacturers and is rapidly growing its Tier 1 capabilities.
The Scottish Government is supporting the GFG Alliance’s acquisition and its investment programme by guaranteeing the power purchases of the aluminium smelter for the next 25 years.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “This is a historic day for the UK’s last remaining aluminium smelter here in Lochaber. GFG Alliance’s buyout of the complex will protect 170 existing jobs and with ambitious plans to invest in the site, expand operations and add value, we look forward to hundreds of new jobs being created in the coming years.
“The Scottish Government is supporting GFG by guaranteeing the power purchases of the aluminium smelter, which reinforces the essential link between the smelter and hydro station at Fort William and provides a firm foundation for GFG’s ambitious expansion plans. Today is the start of an exciting new chapter in Scotland’s manufacturing story and the Scottish Government and its agencies will keep working with Sanjeev Gupta and the GFG Alliance to help them realise their enterprising vision for Lochaber.”
Sanjeev Gupta, executive chairman of Liberty House Group and of the GFG Alliance strategic board, said: “We hope this day will come to be recognised as the start of a bright new future for Highland industry. It puts Lochaber right at the heart of our vision for sustainable and integrated local production that can revitalise British manufacturing. The Scottish Government has recognised the immense opportunity this investment brings. Their support has been refreshing and inspiring.
“We look forward to working with the highly-skilled management team and workforce who join our family today and the many others who will join us in the future, as we embark upon this exciting journey here in the Highlands,” he added.
Jay Hambro, Chief Investment Officer of the GFG Alliance, and Chief Executive of SIMEC Energy & Mining Divisions said: “I am delighted that SIMEC’s portfolio of renewable energy assets continues to expand with a determined and focused investment strategy. These hydro-power stations have enough capacity to power around 83,000 homes. Today Lochaber provides the power required to produce 47,000 tonnes of aluminium. We have already identified investment programmes to significantly increase power generation from the existing assets and are studying how to create further capacity locally. SIMEC prides itself on providing innovative renewable and cost-effective power solutions for Liberty’s industrial activities; for example, the fish-oil powered generators driving the rolling mill at Liberty Steel Newport.”
He described the vast estate lands around Lochaber as a ‘sleeping giant’ and said: “SIMEC will look to work with Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and all local communities to develop the great potential locked up here.”
The purchase of Lochaber represents a major escalation of the GFG Alliance’s investment in Scotland, following Liberty’s acquisition of the Dalzell and Clydebridge Steel plants earlier this year. Dalzell formally restarted in September after being mothballed by previous owners.
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British Lithium Pressured Due To Calls for Electric Cars
The British demand for lithium is set to reach 75,000 tonnes by 2035 as the government works towards their ban on the sale of high-polluting diesel and petrol vehicles within the UK. This comes as automakers worldwide continue to insist on the benefits electric vehicles will have on slowing the rate of climate change.
It is estimated that the UK will require 50,000-60,000 MT of lithium carbonate a year by 2035 for battery production to satisfy government needs. This is assuming production remains at 1.2 million vehicles per year, and the amount of lithium required does not increase.
British Lithium, which hopes to begin constructing a quarry to produce 20,000 MT of lithium carbonate a year in a $400 million investment, are not without competitors, both within the UK and abroad.
Competition For Lithium Rises In Europe
After only five years after its initial launch, Cornish Lithium is setting its sights on becoming a UK powerhouse in mining lithium, aiming to begin commercial production in under four years. Jeremy Wrathall, a former investment banker and current managing director of Cornish Lithium, had the future in mind when founding the company.
“In 2016, I started to think about the electric vehicle revolution and what that would mean for metal demand, and I started to think about lithium,” he said in an interview with AFP. “A friend of mine mentioned lithium being identified in Cornwall, and I just wondered if that was a sort of unrecognised thing in the UK.”
Lithium was first discovered in Cornwall around 1864 and has not been mined again since 1914 when it was produced as an ingredient in fireworks. Now, however, Cornish Lithium is reportedly in the testing stage to see if the metal can be produced commercially to meet the growing demand required for the electric car sector.
Despite Cornwall’s close historic ties to mining lithium, Wrathall insists that the project is purely commercial.
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“It’s not a mission that drives me to the point of being emotional or romantic,” he says. “It’s vitally important that we do get this technology otherwise Europe has got no lithium supply.”
The European Commission has also stated their goal to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 to aid the environment. That being said, the majority of lithium extraction currently relies on power provided by environmentally damaging fossil fuels─a slight contradiction.
Alex Keynes, from the Brussels-based lobby group Transport & Environment, is adamant that mining for lithium should be done sustainably.
“Our view is that medium-to-long term, the majority of materials including lithium should come from efficient and clean recycling.
“Europe from a strategic point of view should be looking at securing its own supply of lithium.”
Despite growing competition from abroad, British Lithium Chairman, Roderick Smith, continues to place importance on the mining of lithium within the UK.
“Imagine what the UK economy would look like if we lost our automotive industry,” Smith says. “The stakes are high for the UK.”
Smith expects the UK to compete with other European countries to secure a lithium battery plant in the near future.