Mud pot fields near the southeastern shores of the Salton Sea show the potential energy brewing beneath the surface of the known Salton Sea Geothermal Resource Area where EnergySource have built geothermal plants and others like Controlled Thermal Resources of Australia are also developing geothermal plants. Ultimately, both companies will also build lithium-extraction facilities to draw the valued mineral from the geothermal brine and serve a demand that is escalating rapidly. | CONTROLLED THERMAL RESOURCE PHOTO
It’s likely everyone in the Imperial Valley has at least one lithium-ion battery in their home, whether it be the battery itself, in portable electronics like cell phones, or even in electric vehicles.
Currently, the U.S. imports most of the lithium it uses from Chile and Argentina, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2020 Mineral Commodity Summaries.
“Six mineral operations in Australia, two brine operations each in Argentina and Chile, and one brine and one mineral operation in China accounted for the majority of world lithium production,” according to Brian Jaskula, who wrote the lithium section of the report.
The Salton Sea area is sitting atop millions of metric tons of lithium in the form of its geothermal brine, and for several years, companies, government officials, and agencies have been working to tap into that resource.
“There’s a swell of re-energy happening today in the state and Washington that we need to have a secure supply of lithium,” Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley said. “The need is only going to grow with electric vehicles and as technology advances. Lithium is such a light material, it’s going to be the choice ingredient for battery construction for the foreseeable future.”
Kelley has been advocating for lithium production at the Salton Sea for more than half a decade, and he’s one of the locals who has applied to take part in the governor’s blue ribbon commission on lithium extraction created by Assembly member Eduardo Garcia’s Assembly Bill 1657.
“We see it as a large benefit to Imperial County,” he said. “We’re talking about safely and environmentally harnessed lithium without the harm to the environment that you see in the ponds in South America.”
In areas like Chile and Argentina, lithium is extracted by pumping large amounts of water from under the earth’s surface into ground-level ponds, according to energytransition.org, a website for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is a catalyst for green visions and projects. That water is left to evaporate over several months, leaving behind lithium.
However, the region has some of the driest parts of the world where water shortages exist, according to the foundation. The evaporating ponds also expose the lithium and other chemicals directly to the wind potentially impacting air quality.
Kelley hopes the lithium at the Salton Sea will not only benefit the Imperial Valley economy with new investments, but projects brought in to extract lithium can also help restore the drying Salton Sea.
The energy developers will have to mitigate impacts on the land where they are developing, which is the areas where the sea is drying up, he said.
The county has had two mineral recovery developments in the past, according to Linsey Dale, Imperial County public information officer. In the early 2000s, CalEnergy developed and operated a zinc-extraction facility utilizing the brine resource. That project was successful but closed after five years.
More recently, Simbol Materials developed a demonstration plant to extract lithium in the late 2010s, she said. Ultimately, the Simbol Materials plant did become a commercial-scale operation and closed in 2015 after a company acquisition fell through and the company filed for bankruptcy.
“The county of Imperial and IID have met with a few potential projects,” Dale said. “However, to date only EnergySource is officially moving forward.”
EnergySource announced plans in October 2019 for a commercial-scale lithium recovery project utilizing the geothermal brine from the Hudson Ranch Power Plant. That project continues to advance, and Vincent Signorotti, vice president of resource and real estate assets for EnergySource, said he hopes to be in construction in late 2021.
“We don’t see any hurdles that cannot be addressed during the project development phase,” he said. “We are quite confident in the process approach and technology being deployed.”
EnergySource needs about $400 million for its Project ATLiS facility, Chief Operating Officer Derek Benson told Bloomberg News recently. The company expects to enter into production in late 2023, though it has been running a pilot project at its plant, off and on, for about four years.
The full-scale facility is expected to produce a little less than 20,000 metric tons of lithium per year, according to Benson.
When in full operation, Project ATLiS is expected to generate more than $25 million per year in direct economic benefit to the local community, including employee salaries, royalties, utilities, and taxes, according to a press release from EnergySource. The project is expected to infuse $60 million annually into the economy.
More Companies Interested
EnergySource isn’t the only company interested in developing near the Salton Sea.
Controlled Thermal Resources Chief Executive Officer Rod Colwell said his company has been working on a project for about eight years, and the first phase is set to be online in 2023.
In the first phase of the project, which includes building a geothermal plant and lithium recovery facility, the company is looking at extracting just under 40,000 tons per year, Colwell said.
Global demand for lithium is expected to more than double from an estimated 47,300 tons in 2020 to 117,400 tons in 2024, according to a GlobalData report. In 2019, rechargeable batteries made up 54 percent of the total lithium demand, but a rapid rise of hybrid and electric vehicle sales has pushed lithium demand up more.
According to a Roskill market report, longer term looks at the future show a strong growth in lithium demand, exceeding 1 million tons in 2027.
The Salton Sea can provide a large percentage of that global demand, Colwell said. And it can do so in a sustainable way.
“That’s the difference in the way of the Salton Sea,” he said. “Sustainability is the biggest difference (from how other areas recover lithium).”
The demand is going to drive the move to recover more lithium, he added.
The total inferred lithium resource at the Salton Sea is about 2.7 million tons, according to the Controlled Thermal Resources website. The company’s project includes eight stages, with the potential to recover 300,000 tons per year, along with a total of 1,100 megawatts in power production at the geothermal facility.
“We’re looking forward to cutting the ribbon and getting the plant going,” he said. “We’re excited to finally get this thing on the ground.”
Political Movement Behind Lithium
In addition to companies, political leaders are also committed to exploring the major economic opportunity for the Salton Sea communities.
In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly member Eduardo Garcia’s Assembly Bill 1657 to create a blue-ribbon commission to explore and expand the state’s emerging lithium-recovery industry.
“After years of concerted advocacy, we have successfully secured California’s commitment to explore the abundant lithium extraction, renewable power potential of the Salton Sea geothermal resource area,” stated Garcia, D-Coachella, who represents Imperial County and a southeastern portion of Riverside County. “In addition to helping meet our clean energy goals, this commission could serve as a valuable lever of our state’s economic recovery strategy.
“The passage of AB 1657 is a major victory for our region, especially for our most impoverished communities who would benefit from the jobs a competitive lithium industry will bring to our area,” he added.
As the global demand for lithium continues to rise, the commission will review, investigate, and analyze opportunities and benefits for lithium extraction and use in California. The commission is required to submit a report to the Legislature documenting its findings and recommendations by Oct. 1, 2022.
The state is currently working on creating the 14-member board to investigate lithium recovery, which is set to include representatives from the industry, organizations, agencies, and communities.