CalEnergy’s Leathers Geothermal Facility on West Sinclair Road on the southeastern end of the Salton Sea is one of 10 plants producing energy in the collective Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area. Some 38 megawatts are produced at the plant. By 2026, the California Public Utilities Commission wants 1,000 new megawatts of geothermal energy brought online and local officials believe this is the Valley’s chance to seize capitalize. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
Yet it was a lesser-known development that happened quietly, by comparison, on the afternoon of June 24 that cleared the path for a future that allows Controlled Thermal Resources’ project and many others to develop the geothermal-energy facilities key to the lithium-extraction process.
“Any new geothermal power development at the Salton Sea will enhance the potential for lithium development and the ancillary businesses that support lithium production,” said Rod Colwell, chief executive officer of Controlled Thermal Resources, in an interview prior to Friday’s announcement.
He was responding to the California Public Utility Commission’s procurement order of 11,500 megawatts on energy during its meeting on June 24, which required that 1,000 megawatts of that order be from new geothermal resources by 2026.
It’s the announcement and signal that many Imperial County officials have been waiting for after prior unsuccessful attempts to compel the state to adopt legislation that requires geothermal energy development from the bountiful subterranean Salton Sea stores.
“This is a tremendous win for Imperial, but also for this (Lithium Valley) Commission. We now have a path for putting new geothermal online, and the accompanying brine that will allow us to recover lithium,” texted Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley just hours after the decision came down on June 24.
“Now the hard work: permitting and financial incentives to make the Lithium Valley a reality,” continued Kelley, who represents District 4, which includes the Salton Sea.
Kelley is vice chair of the 14-member Lithium Valley Commission, a creation of Assembly Bill 1657, introduced by Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella.
CPUC Puts in Its Order
Two weeks ago, when the California Public Utilities Commission rendered its long-awaited decision on a plan to address mid-term reliability needs of the electricity system within the California Independent System Operator’s interconnected “grid,” it created an “in” Imperial County had been seeking.
“I think it’s significant,” Kelley said during an interview last week. “It’s something we’ve been advocating for for a long time, recognizing geothermal as a renewable energy resource in Imperial County.”
It’s significant because it’s a mandate for all Cal ISO, and it could mean doubling or even tripling the number of geothermal-energy plants in Imperial County, Kelley said, which he added will lead to high-paying jobs coming to the area and the tax-base increases, so the county can provide more services for the community.
There are other areas in the state that have geothermal production, but Kelley said to his knowledge the capacity is limited in those areas. At the Salton Sea, there is a huge resource of geothermal potential, so the vast majority of those 1,000 megawatts could come from Imperial County if the procurement order is finalized in a vote expected later in the year.
CPUC’s order does bring up a double-edged sword of trying to get the geothermal plants in Imperial County’s queue streamlined and permitted before the 2026 deadline.
“We always said we should have such a problem,” Kelley mused. “It will be on our own responsiveness to see how we’re going to position ourselves to make sure that development occurs, and make sure it passes all the guidelines, environmental, etc.
“We’ve been wanting that challenge, and now, we welcome it,” he added.
For the CPUC’s needs by 2026, there is still more than double the megawattage in “mean capacity” of unused and untapped geothermal energy around the sea, listed around 2,210 megawatts, according to a 2008 study of the area by the U.S. Geological Survey.
What does that mean for companies working on developing geothermal power at the Salton Sea?
“Increased opportunity for power development from the Salton Sea geothermal field,” said Controlled Thermal Resources’ Colwell.
Others are waiting to get their geothermal plants online as well, along with their lithium extraction facilities, a process that goes hand in hand with geothermal-energy production because the lithium — often referred to as “white gold” due to its color, value, and conductivity — is extracted from the super-heated brine drawn from the earth as a byproduct of energy production.
“EnergySource Minerals is focused on the commercial development of its minerals recovery project,” said Vincent Signorotti, vice president of resources and real estate assets for EnergySource. “These efforts are advancing in earnest. The recent CPUC decision can help elevate the geothermal industry at large and that is a potentially good thing for all.”
Although Controlled Thermal Resources’ project tends to get the press, according to county officials some months back, EnergySource’s project is further along in the process to fruition. Last year, a groundbreaking had been expected for some time in 2021.
Supervisor Kelley explained that a CPUC decision earlier in the year included 1,000 megawatts of geothermal to be acquired by 2025, but that definition was changed slightly to be firm zero pollution-emitting resources by 2026 on June 24.
“To qualify in this category, resources must be able to deliver firm power,” according to the revised decision, what is often called “base load,” or the kind of renewable source that is consistently producing, as opposed to cyclical producers like wind or solar.
“This means that the resource must not be subject to use limitations or be weather dependent. The resource must be a generating resource, not storage, able to generate when needed, for as long as needed,”
The decision would impact Cal ISO utilities, not independent utilities like the Imperial Irrigation District.
However, Kelley said IID has already been purchasing geothermal power and has had a legacy of being in favor of developing geothermal along the sea. In fact, Kelley’s older brother, the late Kevin Kelley, a former IID general manager, was a main proponent.
Some utilities like San Diego Gas and Electric used to also support geothermal power but have since walked back their use of the energy source, Ryan Kelley added.
“We’re reviewing everything, and we’re always not taking anything for granted,” he said. “This order will be adopted at the end of the year. We’ll make sure nothing siderails any objective.”
More About CTR-GM Agreement
The Controlled Thermal Resources and General Motors announcement was big news on Friday morning for both companies.
On the local front, it was significant for CTR in that it was the first major investor that would bring its Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power Development to fruition after several years of planning and outreach in Imperial County.
“We are very pleased to establish this strategic relationship with GM moving forward,” Colwell stated in a press release. “GM has shown great initiative and a real forward-thinking strategy by securing and localizing a lithium supply chain while also considering the most effective methods to minimize environmental impacts.”
But it also spoke to the promise of Assembly Member Garcia’s AB 1657, passed in 2020, which was put together as a roadmap to build out lithium development around the Salton Sea.
AB 1657 created the Assembly Select Committee on California’s Lithium Economy and the “blue-ribbon” Lithium Valley Commission. Garcia is chair of the Assembly committee and Supervisor Kelley is vice chair of the commission.
“Our efforts to galvanize a thriving, robust lithium economy in our Salton Sea region are becoming a reality more and more each day,” Garcia stated in a press release sent out Friday afternoon. “With the ability to meet one-third of the global lithium demand, our Imperial County, Salton Sea area, can take center stage in the future of our domestic lithium supply chain.
“After years of laying the groundwork, we are ready to move forward pedal to the metal on our cleaner air, electric vehicle, and climate goals while utilizing these economic development opportunities to bring vital resources, improve public health, and uplift overall circumstances in our region,” Garcia continued.
“More than ever, we must continue to elevate our community engagement efforts to ensure local stakeholders and residents are in the driver’s seat as we set this new course. Our work last year (AB 1657) to establish the Lithium Valley Commission will help ensure that,” he added.
For GM, it was a major announcement in that it was part of a $35 billion global strategy to expand its electric and autonomous vehicle footprint, and the CTR investment ensures a reliable and sustainable supply for its lithium-ion batteries in a supply-chain with some problematic global practices and availability.
‘Lithium Valley’ Offers Solution
By most estimations, the global demand for lithium — which is primarily fueled by the battery sector and the electric vehicle industry — is predicted to more than double by 2024.
Production of the battery metal is set to almost triple by 2025 to more than 1.5 million metric tons, according to S&P Global, but much of the world’s supply chain of lithium is wrapped up in practices that are questionable for the environment, and the competition to secure access to the resource is fierce.
A sustainable, environmentally conscientious, and secure pipeline for American companies is necessary.
Perhaps for some of these reasons, the inclusion of the environmental justice community has been an important aspect of membership on the commission. Representing that end has been members Frank Ruiz of Audubon California and Olmedo, of Comite Civico.
“The United States has laws in the books at all levels that can make lithium extraction to market-ready product more sustainable and safer than open mining happening around the world,” Olmedo said recently. “This can only happen if the Valley’s people become engaged in the planning, and Lithium Valley Commission is a good place to start.”
The main buyers of the lithium carbonate used in the manufacture of so many in-demand high-tech components from overseas were South Korea at $483 million (U.S. equivalent), Japan at $312 million, and China at $240 million, according to December 2020 data from Diálogo Chino, a United Kingdom-based independent journalism project.
And the lion’s share of the world’s production of those supplies is happening in what is called the “Lithium Triangle” of South America — Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, where the USGS estimates 47 million tons exist, or 65 percent of the planet’s total stores — and in quarries in Australia, where many mining operations and supplies are controlled by China.
In both locations, extracting the metals can take its toll on the environment. In Australia, it’s primarily hard-rock mining, but in South America the process is the brine extraction that would occur around the Salton Sea, but in an open-air leaching process that is lengthy, damaging to the land, and is using incredible amounts of water.
To extract 1 ton of lithium, some 500,000 gallons of water is required in the brine leaching process used in the Lithium Triangle, an amount estimated by Diálogo Chino to be enough water for 3,500 people for a year.
In one example noted by the report, Chile’s Salar de Atacama was using 65 percent of the region’s water for an area that gets just over a half of an inch of annual rainfall per year.
And that process used in the Lithium Triangle involves drilling into the earth and allowing the mineral-rich brine to surface into large evaporation pools, where it is left for months. What forms is a crust of manganese, potassium, borax, and lithium salts, which have to be moved to another evaporation pond.
After 12 to 18 months, the lithium carbonate can then be extracted, and through that timeline toxic chemicals are used in the separation process, such as hydrochloric acid, that can leak from the evaporation pools into local water supplies and also affect air quality, according to Diálogo Chino, which has documented the displacement of indigenous peoples of those areas due to dwindling or poisoned water supplies.
Comite Civico’s Olmedo said lithium in the Imperial Valley is a public resource that can be “extracted safely and benefit the region.”
Conceptually the process around the Salton Sea does use the same earthen mineral-rich brine, but the extraction of lithium occurs in a closed loop that is a secondary process to the primary function of creating geothermal energy from the super-heated liquid.
That liquid has traditionally been reinjected into the earth around the Salton Sea, or any geothermal plant where energy production occurs, but in the commercial-grade process that brine would run through a second facility to recover the various minerals that have worth and use.
Imperial County had two mineral recovery developments in the past, according to county officials. In the early 2000s, CalEnergy developed and operated a zinc-extraction facility. That project was successful but closed after five years.
More recently, Simbol Materials developed a demonstration plant to extract lithium in the late 2010s, a county spokesperson said. Simbol Materials did become a commercial-scale operation but closed in 2015 due to bankruptcy.
Now is the time to strike, according to Olmedo, and why stop with extraction?
“California aims to ban all fossil-fuel vehicle production by 2035. Localizing the lithium extraction, product manufacturing and possible vehicle assembly locally is not at all unreasonable given the region has all the logistics to support the entire assembly line,” he said.
In this issue, Olmedo indicated, there exists not only the environmental factor, but social justice and equity that can be achieved in realizing the potential of the Salton Sea’s resource.
“The Imperial Valley is rich in natural resources, and it’s inexcusable the wealth gap that exists,” Olmedo added. “The biggest risk we face is allowing decisions being made locally (the) way it’s always been done. And we cannot make this happen without community being engaged in the entire planning and envisioning process.”